Saturday, March 28, 2009

Cox's Bizarre

Roaring along the seaside highway on the back of Pegasus’ motorcycle, I held on to him as his long hair blew back in my face, and I …….feel like I’m writing a Harlequin Romance novel. Maybe I should rewind a bit. Ever since we arrived in Chittagong, Kristel and I had been repeatedly asked whether we’d visited Cox’s Bazar, a seaside resort town on the Bay of Bengal, four hours to the south of us. Said to be located on the world’s longest beach, Cox’s Bazar is the vacation destination for many Bangladeshis looking to escape the crowded cities in favour of a crowded beach. Until last week, we didn’t have the time or opportunity to pay it a visit, but with the Independence Day holiday on the calendar and a chance to travel there on official YPSA business, we packed our swimsuits and headed for the sunshine.

After attending the launch ceremony for a new water and sanitation project that YPSA will be implementing in the area, we were free to start our beach holiday. Wandering back toward the bay from YPSA’s guest house, we found Cox’s Bazar to be pretty much identical to any resort town – same hotels, same stores selling beach gear and trinkets, same cows walking down the street. Well, there might have been one or two differences. The beach itself was vast and surprisingly uncrowded, considering that the holiday weekend was about to begin. Beach chairs with their own umbrellas stretched for a mile in a perfect line at the tideline and were being hawked for 20 Taka an hour. Some swimmers were enjoying a late-afternoon dip, but in observance of the strict Muslim codes of the country, most did so more or less fully clothed, which made for an interesting scene. It was if we had gone back in time in Canada, when the revelation of flesh at the beach was a cause for scandal and even an uncovered knee was met with disapproval. Some of the men we watched were a bit more liberal in this respect, choosing to doff their shirts and go in with only their swim trunks, but the women went into the water covered from head to toe. We even met some women in full burkas strolling along the beach, which must have made for an incredibly hot experience. Though we were the only bideshis in sight, we weren’t as much of a target for vendors as you might think – a handful of children offered us seashell necklaces and we were given a few opportunities to go for a horseback ride or dune buggy cruise, but for the most part, people let us walk in peace.

This may sound a little strange, given where we were, but neither Kristel nor I is much of a beach person, and the thought of spending an entire afternoon suntanning our ankles never really held much appeal, so we directed our attention to our guidebook in an effort to find another diversion. Lavishing praise on the Mermaid Café, the guide said it had received more positive comments on this one spot than on all of the other restaurants in the country put together, so how could we possibly not go for a (sadly) non-alcoholic drink there? The only remaining question was its location, somewhat vaguely described in our book as being “on the beach”. As we scanned the treeline for signs of enraptured tourists blissfully enjoying banana shakes, we were approached by two young men who said they were from the Mermaid and handed us a map. Surely, this was a sign that we were meant to drink there!

Following the map’s directions, we soon found the café, and it was fine, though not exactly the oasis of pleasure that we were expecting. Its outdoor tables were great for enjoying the setting sun, but the speakers blaring Shania Twain detracted from the ambiance, though my Canadian pride did get a boost from hearing her sing about the best part of being a woman. Kristel was less impressed with Shania’s warbled declarations of womanhood, so we were soon headed for the exit in search of a second Mermaid Café that was listed on the map as being farther down the beach. But with darkness now fully descended, we had to abandon our quest and settled for a less lauded but still great eatery down the road.

The next day, we decided to make another attempt to find the elusive second café. Never underestimate the ability of people to become fixated on something out of reach. Again consulting our guidebook, we determined that the Mermaid Café had recently completed construction of an eco-resort and artists’ village that would be every bit the equal of its superior cafes, if our book was to be believed, which started to become a question worth asking. Deciding that this must be where the second café could be found, hopefully along with some actual mermaids to justify our effort, we began to ask directions to the eco-resort and received repeated confirmations of the location of the café we had already visited. Finally, one fellow said he had been to the place the day before and told us how to find it. “Can’t miss it,” he said, “There’s a big sign across the road from Inani Beach.” In the annals of the English language, there are probably no three words that are more untrue than “can’t miss it”, except maybe “this won’t hurt” or “I’m completely sober”. Hailing a CNG for us, he gave instructions to the driver and we were on our way. Looking to hedge our bets a little, we asked the driver to pull over and called the mobile number on our map (something that likely should have occurred to us twenty-four hours ago). Speaking to a Mermaid Café representative, possibly himself a merman, we asked how to get to the eco-resort and whether it was worth visiting if we weren’t looking for a room. “Oh, yes,” said the merman, “the artists’ village is quite lovely, so you will really enjoy yourselves.” Handing the phone to the driver, we watched as he received his directions and soon were back on the road, more confident than ever that our eco-resort awaited us.

The drive along the coast was a brilliant trip. After leaving the outskirts of Cox’s Bazar, we were treated to kilometer after kilometer of unspoiled beach, the only signs of humanity being the odd fishing net strung up along the way. We could have dropped at any point and had the entire shoreline to ourselves. Just before a large bridge that straddled the ocean as it narrowed to an inland river, our driver stopped and announced that we had arrived. We looked around us and were somewhat confused. A collection of huts huddled near the roadside and there was nary a mermaid nor Shania to be found. We insisted there must be some mistake, to which the driver shrugged, as if to say, “And you’re the ones who made it”. Dialling our friendly merman, I told him of our predicament, and he asked, “You actually went there?”, as if this was the first time we’d spoken. When I reminded him of his recommendation and the sublime artists’ village that he had promised, he said, “Yeah, but all of the artists left months ago.” I rested my head against the side of the CNG and asked how we would know whether we were in the right spot. “Let me call someone to show you around the place”, he replied and hung up, without answering the fundamental questions of where “the place” was and if we were actually there. At this point, Kristel and I decided to split up to double our luck, so I kept the driver company while she scouted out the purported resort. Coming back after five minutes, she confirmed that we had the right place and it was basically deserted, but that it might be a nice spot for a couple of hours, with the emphasis on “couple”. To ensure this was the case, we negotiated a price with our driver to return to pick us up. A broad smile either indicated agreement or amusement, so we hoped for the best as we watched him disappear around the corner.

As with the eco-resort that we discovered in Nigeria, the Mermaid resort was undeniably ecologically friendly, as there was no one there to produce any waste. A few staff members poked around the site, but there were no guests to be found. Our tour of the site revealed that the artists must have been quite protective of their works, since they took everything with them when they left. The only sculptures to be found were a wood carving at the entrance and a lonely mermaid looking out over a boggy wetland. The main washroom was a bit of a marvel, though, with an open air concept that was somehow relaxing and unsettling at the same time. The rest of the site consisted of two buildings housing the bedrooms, with the larger of the two having a patio with chairs for relaxing and a foosball table for foosing. As we sat and enjoyed the views of the ocean and river delta, our tour guide for the afternoon arrived.

From his Mermaid Café T-shirt, I deduced he might be a staff member, so we introduced ourselves. “Hi, my name is Shahin,” he said, “but my friends call me Pegasus.” And I thought to myself, why didn’t I think of this before? Here I am, in a country where nobody knows me. It’s the perfect opportunity to give myself the nickname that I’ve always lacked. How easy it would be to say, “Hi, I’m Glenn, but my friends call me Hercules” or “Hi, my name is Glenn, but you can call me Mr. Dressup”. While I worked out the possibilities in my head, Kristel asked him the obvious question of why he was called Pegasus, since he didn’t appear to have wings or be a horse. “Because I’m so fast”, came the reply, with a “how you doin’?” smile that made me abandon my nickname search and jump back into the conversation. I asked him if someone had told him we were there and he confirmed that he had been asked to show us around, so “I jumped on my bike and here I am”. “Wow, you ARE fast!” said Kristel. “So, let’s start the tour,” I said, trying to steer the conversation away from Pegasus’ speed.

And so, we spent a pleasant afternoon with Pegasus, who turned out to be a very nice young man. After a brief chat on the patio, we made our way to the bridge and took many photographs of the boats nearby and the people who work on them. And then it was time to return to Cox’s Bazar. Looking at our watches, we saw that our appointed time with our CNG driver was drawing near, so we asked some of the staff who witnessed our conversation with him whether they thought he would be coming back. Slight smiles and shakes of the head easily translated to “no way in hell”, so we were left to work out a solution with Pegasus. “Well, I can call a CNG for you or we can all go on my bike,” he said. “Ha! Ha!”, I laughed, thinking that Peggy was making a joke. But I appeared to be the only one laughing, so I quickly passed it off as a cough. “It would save us some time,” said Kristel, “What do you think?” I tried to come up with a cool way to say “This isn’t prudent”, but when I asked myself the important question, “What would Mr. Dressup do?”, I knew there was only one answer.

As we approached the bike, I began to have second thoughts. According to Pegasus, the government of Bangladesh has severely restricted the use of sportscars and their motorcycle equivalents, levying a tariff on them that’s stiff enough to discourage all but the wealthiest from putting them on the road. All of this was done in an effort to limit accidents on the road, and while I applauded the government on this initiative, it did mean that Pegasus had a pretty small bike for the three of us. Visions of us hitting a speed bump and losing one of us loomed as we positioned ourselves on the bike, with me occupying the relatively comfortable and safe sandwich seat between Pegasus and Kristel. “Are you ready?” said Peg, and off we went. To his credit, he didn’t try to live up to his nickname on this trip, driving at an easy cruising speed that allowed him to dodge the CNGs and buses that came at us like invading armies. Every now and then, Pegasus would yell something to me that the wind would immediately take away. With no chance of hearing what he was saying, I just kept replying, “Yeah, that’s great!” and hoped he wasn’t asking if he could open it up a little or jump the next bridge.

Arriving back at Cox’s Bazar, we drove down to the beach once again and dismounted. Having skipped lunch, Kristel and I were both famished, so we decided that dinner would come early that day, and given the amount of effort by Pegasus that afternoon, there was little doubt about where we would be dining. So, we thanked him for everything and said we would be heading to the Mermaid for drinks and a meal. “See you there!”, he said, “I have a shift tonight.” Leaving him to find a place for his bike, we walked down the road to the café and arrived just in time to hear Shania sing, “Looks like we made it”. Truer words were never sung, Ms. Twain.

A Day at Cox's Bazar

Man Eating, Shark

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Ol' '69

I’ve always had a fascination with trains. Well, not really, but I needed a snappy intro for this piece. The truth is, I’ve never really spent much time thinking about them, since they had largely been relegated to a fond memory in Canada by the time I was born. I would often listen to the whistle of the cargo train as it passed through my hometown, but I never once fantasized about hopping onboard with my harmonica and my trusty companion, Winky the wonder dog, to ride across the country with the other hobos for parts and adventures unknown. This was probably for the best, since the only wonder about Winky was the amount of flatulence she could produce, and this likely wouldn’t have endeared us to our fellow tramps. Though it was still possible to catch a passenger train to many parts of the country when I was growing up, the romance of train travel had clearly been replaced by the convenience of using one’s own car, so it’s somewhat telling that I boarded my first train at the relatively advanced age of 25 and even more telling that the train was part of the subway system in Toronto. And believe me, there’s nothing romantic about that experience.

In the years since that magical first ride, I’ve only had a few train trips that weren’t subterranean, and most were memorably bad, with delays reducing the train schedules to works of fiction and train personnel being capably condescending in both official languages. Perhaps the best of the worst was a trip from Montreal to Toronto that was over an hour late because our train had started down the wrong track and needed to back up to avoid another train that was bearing down on us. So, count me among those who failed to get nostalgic when discussing the bygone age of locomotion. When I moved to Nigeria in 2007, I found a country with even less regard for its railway, as evidenced by the rusted hulks resting on the tracks in Kafanchan. I would sometimes use the railyard as a shortcut to the town centre, and I could confidently walk through the deserted rail cars that were blocking my path, knowing there was little chance that the train would suddenly come to life and spirit me away to Lagos.

So, the appeal of a train trip in Bangladesh was more than a little lost on me when I was told that we would be catching a ride from Chittagong University back to the city at the end of the day. We had arrived on the campus earlier that day to deliver a lecture to a group of debating society students on the prevention of domestic violence. More accurately, Kristel and I attended the lecture delivered by our YPSA colleague, since our command of the Bangla language is still limited to “Hello!” and “I’m lost. Please help me.”, neither of which would have advanced the discussion very far. Though we understood little of the presentation, it was easy to see that the students were very engaged, as many asked questions throughout and competed to provide answers whenever the opportunity arose.

With the presentation completed, we were free to wander the campus for a couple of hours. And what a tremendous place it is. Since arriving in Chittagong, Kristel and I have been searching for a refuge from the congestion of city life. With a population that hovers around the five million mark, Chittagong seems to have precious few places that could be considered peaceful. Even the parks and designated areas of nature like Foy’s Lake have a sense of being surrounded by the city, so one never really seems to get the chance to take a break from it all. But Chittagong University provided such a sanctuary, at least on this day. Said to be the largest university in the country in terms of acreage (but only fourth or fifth in student population), the school is set among a forest that, for once, wasn’t completely sacrificed in the name of settlement. Located far on the outskirts of the city, the University seems to have taken great pains to separate itself from the bustle of life there. Gone for the most part are the CNGs (also known as baby taxis) that are ubiquitous throughout the rest of the city, along with their ever-present horns and daredevil driving. Even cars seem to have largely forsaken this spot, leaving only rickshaws as the main form of transportation here, their gentle bells ringing through the forest like a convention of woodland fauns, if they had bells tied around their necks and rode bicycles.

The university itself, it must be said, has seen better days. Just over 40 years old, the university houses some buildings that are in great need of restoration. The classroom we visited for the lecture had graffiti scrawled on the doors and walls that was mostly in English, oddly enough, as though the students were eager to show off their second language skills. Years of heat, humidity and rainfall have also taken their toll, as the paint that originally covered the walls has surrendered to mould and decay, leaving the buildings discoloured and crumbling around the edges. But the natural beauty of the surroundings more than makes up for this decline, and one ends up accepting the neglect as part of the landscape.

As it turned out, even the buildings here can surprise with unexpected beauty. Leading us away from the main campus, our colleagues introduced us to a Buddhist monastery that was the essence of tranquility, except maybe for the group of monks playing cricket just inside the gates. As we walked through the courtyard, we admired the flowers and the abundance of quiet before discovering the hidden gem of the monastery, an outside staircase at the back descending to pools of water and lush greenery. These monks really know what time it is. I briefly considered chucking it all and throwing in with them, but I still don’t know how to play cricket, so I expect my application would be respectfully declined. After a short pause for some photographs and deep breaths, we looked at our watches and realized it was time for our train ride back to anxiety.

As we approached the train, Kristel and I asked where the ticket counter was and were amazed to hear that the train was free. Well, not quite. Costs for the operation of the train are included in the fees paid by the students to attend the university, so students aren’t required to pay to travel each time they boarded. This still seemed quite progressive, and not just because we were mooching a ride. The train had two departure times per day, so the students knew they had to be on the train before 5:20 pm to catch the last ride of the day. Arriving five minutes before this, we found a scene that might have existed a hundred years ago in Canada, with a crowd of people approaching all of the train cars at once, but with no sign of apprehension or frustration, just plenty of activity and energy. Finding a seat proved to be very easy and we were soon joined in our car by a group of young people who filled it to capacity. I was surprised to see a vendor come on board to begin selling nuts in the last moments before the train was due to leave. Promptly at 5:20, the train started down the track, though students were still joining the train at 5:21 and 5:22, making running jumps onboard that would likely have given their parents cardiac arrests if they had seen them.

And that was one of the surprising things about this train. There were no adults in each car to ensure order was kept and unruly behaviour discouraged. No one gated the doorways or insisted that people remain seated. And no one was needed for this. The students understood the consequences of hanging off the side of the train or sticking limbs out the windows and no one attempted this. The only evidence of delinquency that could be found was on the walls of the train, again liberally decorated with English words such as “cockpit”, and more interestingly, “’69”, which can be interpreted in a number of ways.

As we rode on to Chittagong, it began to feel as if the kids had commandeered the train and were taking it wherever they wanted. Laughter coursed up and down the aisles as the students recounted their days and likely made fun of the ancient foreigners sitting among them. Part way through the 45-minute journey, a group of students next to us started up a song that was soon joined by many others, with some providing percussion by clapping and slapping the walls next to them. The car soon swelled with music as we passed the setting sun outside. It was a great moment. All too soon it seemed, we reached our stop, and we left the train by literally jumping out the door. As we walked beside the train, the remaining passengers onboard stuck their heads out the windows to watch us pass. The train pulled away just as we turned to head to nearest intersection, and I paused to watch it go. And suddenly it dawned on me that I finally understood the enduring romance that people have with train travel. I only wished that Winky was there to share this moment with me.

Chittagong University and the Ol' '69

Monday, March 9, 2009

Southpaw's Lament

From the time I was first able to pick up a crayon, I have always been left-handed. Unapologetically so. Lefties are a proud group who have bravely persevered in a decidedly right-handed world. Gear shifts taunt us. Scissors in our hands become instruments of havoc. Banks chain their pens in impossible locations. In my elementary school classrooms, the one desk designed for left-handers usually sat forlornly in the back row in the choice position next to the bathroom. In the unfortunate event that there were two lefties in the class, we were forced to battle it out each morning for occupancy rights, or worse, one of us would be assigned a neutral-hand desk, a nondescript table rescued from the teacher’s lounge that still retained the fragrant mélange of cigarettes and broken dreams. Much like Canadians have an obsession with trumpeting the achievements of their fellow citizens in Hollywood and Major League Baseball, left-handers also love to celebrate those of our own kind. Napoleon? Leftie. Kermit the Frog? Not easy being green or leftie. Joan of Arc? The very symbol of southpaw persecution. When Barack Obama took the oath of office, it continued the proud tradition of left-handers occupying the Oval Office over the past thirty years or so, with the notable exception of Dubya, and we all know how well that turned out.

But being left-handed is tolerated in Canadian society. People smile when they see me sign my name and invariably say, “Oh, you’re a leftie, eh?” as if giving me one last chance to deny my status and blame it on a mental lapse or an injury to my right arm from a vaccination mishap or bear attack. These same people then feel the need to go on to mention a relative or someone they know who’s similarly afflicted to let me know that I’m not alone. And if it turns out that by chance they themselves are lefties, we give each other the secret lefthandshake and confirm our plans for world domination. In Bangladesh, being left-handed is a more serious issue, as people can take offence at one’s use of the left hand. The cultural norm is that the right hand is used for greeting, eating and passing items, while the left is reserved for wiping one’s posterior and other acts unmentionable on a family blog such as this one. The notion that the left hand could be multi-purpose if properly cleansed is unacceptable here. As a bideshi, or foreigner, I could likely be excused for my mistaken use of the left hand, but I have been determined since my arrival to conform to the custom in an effort to fit in as much as possible. Or at least, to stand out less.

This has resulted in some interesting fumbling. In my usual course of buying anything, I would simply pull out my wallet and hand the bills to the salesclerk with my left hand. Since this would be considered an insult here, I often end up juggling my wallet and money like I’m performing a magic trick for the benefit of the bewildered vendor. Even better, there have been times when I’ve started to pass the money with my left hand, remembered the faux pas at the last minute and withdrawn the bills, leaving the clerk wondering whether I was having second thoughts about buying their Corn Flakes. After the seamless transfer of the cash to my right hand, we try the process again, and the vendor relaxes and calls off the security guard who had been on his way to assist me out of the store.

But by far, the most interesting aspect of having to adjust to using my right hand has been at mealtimes. Actually, eating a meal in Bangladesh has been an interesting adjustment generally. The custom here is to eat with one’s right hand and avoid using any utensils except for putting the food on one’s plate or for eating desserts that would be unmanageable otherwise. There is the sense that the tactile aspect of taking food in one’s hand adds to the enjoyment of the eating experience and heightens the pleasure one gets from the food. If it’s done properly, of course, which would be opposite to the way that I have been doing it. Though it sounds rather simple, eating directly with the hand is a skill that I clearly need to develop. Rice is a particular challenge, as the grains tend to go everywhere but in my mouth, prompting some sympathetic coworkers watching the meal massacre to lean in and confide that it’s really OK if I decide to use a fork or spoon. “Nebuh!”, I declare, as the food I did manage to get in my mouth threatens to fly out and blind someone. Adding to my embarrassment is the fact that Kristel has taken to the new technique without missing a beat and now eats as comfortably as those around her. I watch enviously as she expertly compacts the rice with her fingers and pops the newly formed morsel in her mouth without any collateral damage.

Deciding to eat strategically, I carefully ladle some dahl on to the rice, thinking that it will help to glue the rice together. Instead, the soupy mass that results would easier be taken up with a straw. I hope I can distract those around me from noticing the increasing flood on my plate by grabbing some of the more solid food on the table, but the boiled eggs placed next to me have been heated to the approximate temperature of the sun, so I’m reduced to blowing on my fingers and making odd whimpering sounds. All the while, my left hand dangles uselessly by my side and I begin to resent its presence at the table, thinking it could be making better use of its time somewhere else, maybe wiping someone’s bum. But with the meal completed and me somewhat sated, I decide to forgive my wayward appendage and give it another chance.

It seems that it is only on the roads that the left hand redeems itself. Having adopted the British style of driving on the left side of the road in vehicles that position the driver on the right, the left hand can finally assume some importance in manipulating the gearshift and making threatening gestures at those who are about to cut into one’s lane. Being on the receiving end of a Bangladeshi bird being flipped is probably made all the worse by it being the evil left hand doing the curse.

And so it seems that my favoured hand will continue to fall into disfavour for the two years that I’m here. But even if the left hand is at a decided disadvantage in Bangladesh, I will continue to proudly use it whenever possible in an effort to promote equality for left-handed people everywhere. Anything else would just not be…..right.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Mutiny

Thursday, February 26th, 4 pm: Bangladesh is a country in crisis. Mutineers in the military have staged an open revolt against their superior officers in Dhaka and bullets are flying across city streets. The mobile telephone network has just been disconnected to prevent the spread of violence, but rumours of gunfire in other parts of the country continue to circulate. The VSO Country Director has just issued an order for all VSO volunteers to return to their homes and stay there until further notice. As I get set to leave the office, a colleague motions me into his office and hands me an envelope with my name on it. I ask what it is, expecting it to contain the evacuation plans for the organization. “My son is about to start eating dry food,” he replies, “so we’re having a party to celebrate”. I open the envelope to find an invitation, complete with party details and the picture of a smiling six-month-old. And somehow, this makes me feel much better.

I haven’t had much experience with mutinies. Mention the word to me and I’m hard pressed to think of anything beyond scurvy scallawags forcing their captain to walk the plank or keelhauling him while making snide remarks about his peg leg. So, when I started to receive text messages from the VSO office in Dhaka on Wednesday that a mutiny was underway in the capital city, I was understandably confused. It didn’t help that Kristel and I were on the move at the time, as our induction program called for us to travel that day to Sitakund on the outskirts of Chittagong, so we had no access to television or the internet. The news we did receive came via updates from the Director of YPSA who was accompanying us to Sitakund and continued to get calls on his cell phone throughout the trip. Though the details were lacking at the time, it was clear that the situation was explosive and in danger of deteriorating quickly.

Our position as newcomers to the country only added to our lack of understanding, as terms such as “BDR” really meant nothing to us and could have equally been applied to a rebel group, military unit or a McDonald’s sandwich without us knowing the difference. Though the Director did his best to explain the situation based on the fractured reports he was receiving, we remained at a loss as to who was fighting whom and why. As the conflict seemed to be contained within the city limits of Dhaka, we felt reasonably assured that we could continue with our program without any danger, so we spent the remainder of the day exploring Sitakund and YPSA’s projects there. It was only with the arrival of the Daily Star newspaper the next morning that the scale of the insurrection became apparent.

“Mutiny, bloodshed at BDR HQ” screamed the headline in bright red letters, as if there was a need to further highlight the horror that occurred. The story that followed outlined the events leading to the rebellion. The BDR, also known as the Bangladesh Rifles, is one of the key military units within Bangladesh and is second in size only to the Bangladesh Army. Assigned the duties of border patrol and anti-smuggling control, the paramilitary group has a history that stretches back a century or more, following the region through its various incarnations. According to the reports spread throughout the paper, the mutiny was the result of unmet demands held by the lower ranking members of the BDR, including those related to their pay and benefits. Seizing the opportunity afforded by a gathering of officers and those under their command, some members of the unit began to issue their demands, and this is when the situation began to worsen rapidly. A response from the officers was answered with gunfire from the regulars and those attending the ceremony soon were held hostage. Those involved in the rebellion soon fanned out to defend their position and began to shoot indiscriminately into the streets. The BDR Headquarters is located in one of the central neighbourhoods of Dhaka and the mutiny began just as many people were making their way to work. As a result, a number of civilians were hit by the bullets and some were killed as they tried to escape the area.

The army responded soon afterwards by bringing its tanks into the centre of the city on Thursday, though it delayed any further action while negotiators brought in by the government attempted to defuse the situation and bring it to an end without further bloodshed. With reports coming in from around the country of BDR soldiers blocking roads and firing their weapons in the air in support of their comrades in Dhaka, the government required the mobile phone network to be shut down to avoid a coordinated effort among the BDR regulars. Blissfully unaware of these latest developments, Kristel and I had decided it was a good time to pay a visit to the British Council in Chittagong to view the facility and what it had to offer. Turned away at the gate for security reasons, we shrugged our shoulders and hopped onto a rickshaw to take us back to our flat. Along the way, Kristel decided she would like to shop at the market for a while, so I left her there and continued on to our home. Soon after I arrived at the flat, there was a furious banging on our front door, and I opened it to find a very anxious member of the YPSA staff who said I must come with him to the office because VSO was trying to contact us. I asked why they didn’t just call us on our mobiles and pulled out my mobile to see for the first time that there was no network. “Oh, look,” I said, “There’s no network” and my YPSA friend stared at me with a look reserved for naïve foreigners who are becoming a huge pain in the ass.

Arriving at the office, I found a congregation of YPSA staff who greeted me as though I had just returned from the front. Always glad to get a hearty pat on the back, I basked in their welcome with no idea of what was going on. Expressing their happiness that Kristel and I were safe, they looked behind me and asked me where she was. “Oh, I left her at the market” and I watched their faces darken. “You left her at the market?” they asked, almost in unison, and I felt the welcome mat get yanked from underneath me. At this point, I asked what was going on and was told that VSO had been trying to reach us for the past hour or so to tell us to stay at home because of the situation in Dhaka. “Umm, we didn’t know. No mobile network,” I said, helpfully shaking my disconnected phone for full naïve-foreigner-pain-in-the-ass effect. Assuring me that nothing was wrong in Chittagong, my colleagues nonetheless offered to mount a search party of the market for Kristel. Imagining the chaos that would result, I told them that it probably wasn’t necessary if everything was OK in the city, and this likely branded me as a heartless bastard in addition to my new status as an ass pain. “OK, well, please come back to the office when Kristel arrives home and we will contact VSO,” they said, at which point I received my party invitation.

After an hour, Kristel came to the flat and I informed her of her status on VSO’s “Most Wanted” list. We went back to the office and made the call to VSO, confirming we were both in one piece (or I guess, more properly, two pieces) and that we would stay at home until we received further notice from them.

After two very tense days in Dhaka, a truce was negotiated with the mutineers and the hostages released. Though many were relieved that the worst seemed to be over, in the days that have passed since the crisis ended, the news has been just as dire. With the BDR Headquarters now reopened, investigators have found dozens of bodies in mass graves. The dead have been identified as officers within the BDR who were killed by the mutineers during the two-day uprising. Combined with the civilian casualties, the death toll now stands at over seventy people, with some officers still missing. The country has been shocked by the scale of the carnage. For some, the number of people killed invokes painful memories of the fight for independence in 1971, but some analyses have said this is even worse, as this battle involved Bangladeshis killing Bangladeshis.

Three official days of mourning have just been completed and fifty of the officers were buried together with full ceremonial honours. The government has now required all members of the BDR to report for duty and promises a full investigation with the assistance of foreign governments to determine who was responsible and bring the appropriate charges against them. This promises to be a difficult and extended process and will no doubt continue to dominate the headlines and remind the nation of all those lost during those two days.

But the people persevere, as they have through all of the disasters in their history, whether they be natural or man-made. Just one day after this crisis, my colleagues gathered to salute a child eating dry food. All of our past anxiety was forgotten for a couple of hours as we all ate dry food late into the night, happy to have an event celebrating life and providing a respite from the darkness of the previous two days.