বুধবার, ২১ অক্টোবর, ২০১৫

Chittagong Hill Tracts--Honjurai to Thanchi to Bandarban

After freezing the night away in Honjurai, woke up to an odd breakfast treat.  Someone had freshly killed a doe and we bought a kilo for around $4 and had doe curry for breakfast.  While the doe tasted just fine, the curry overwhelmed the gamey flavor a bit and I wasn't thrilled to know that the doe was pregnant.  As previously mentioned, my trekking poles were taken the night before and Imran and I got an early start to keep the group from being held up while I removed my shoes and dried my feet during our four river crossings.  A couple of hours after we started, the rest of the group caught up and I mentioned that my poles had been stolen.  Although that's exactly what happened, Alim became enraged and took it as a personal insult against his country.  He then went into an anti-American rant and although I tried to soothe him, he would not calm down.  Three of the other party later apologized to me and mentioned that he sometimes had anger issues and to just let it go and things would be fine within a few minutes.  This turned out not to be the case and the rant continued at the next rest stop; he mentioned that Americans had to lock their houses and villagers didn't.  I probably didn't help the matter by pointing out the two padlocks on the home we were resting within, but I was sick of listening to his shit on what had otherwise been a great trip.  I appreciated the other members who apologized for his inappropriate behavior.  The next goal was the third highest mountain in Bangladesh, Tajingdong (3488', 1063 meters).  Things got a bit weird when the nice guide, Imran, demanded an additional 3000 taka (almost $40) to "help" me to the summit.  I'll always wonder if the demand was really Imran's idea or perhaps some sort of retaliation.  I asked a few others and they said they didn't think so.  Still, it put a certain unpleasantness on the rest of the day, though Imran continued to be very friendly (and that's why I think the demand wasn't his idea).  Or maybe that's just the way things work when trekking with a non-professional agency when no contracts are involved.  At any rate, it was never my goal to summit #3, so I didn't really care and chose to wait 40-50 meters from the top with another group member.
Tanim, Masud and Nuwel
I don't believe I've expressed enough appreciation for our 2nd guide, Nuwel, who joined us shortly after Keokradong and parted with us at Tajingdong.  He insisted on carrying my pack and since I'd never really backpacked, he made my life immeasurably easier.  At no point did he ask for any additional costs, but I will make a donation to his town because he represented to me the best of a lovely civilization.  He's a Bawm Baptist with very good English skills, especially considering that he grew up in a tiny town far removed from better educational institutions.  Nuwel, you will always be remembered.

After Tajingdong, we headed for our final destination of the evening, a lovely home in Shakor Para.  I finally joined in and took a single hit of pot.  It tasted and acted like the crap we used to smoke in the '60s, but I was happy to fulfill my earlier promise to smoke with the guys on the last night and furthe happier that it had zero effect on my trekking the next day.

I've had a lot of foot problems this past year, but for some reason, my feet seem to be getting stronger and I haven't had to take any pain meds.  Had a huge fear before the trip that I would have to suck it up and deal with barely tolerable pain, but that hasn't been the case.  At this point, everyone was eager to get home and we hiked quickly to Thanchi the next morning, arriving after about 5 hours on the trail.  There were some dicey climbs and the other guys decided to rest with hits of dope, making the climbs especially scary for the users.  Once again the day started unpleasantly when an additional $25 was demanded of me for a bribe which had supposedly been paid 4 days earlier in Ruma.  And once again it was Imran who delivered the demand.  I simply said "no" and that I thought it was BS.  Once again Alim became infuriated, thus further making me question his motivations.  And once again Imran and I happily took off together ahead of the rest of the pack.

Today was provincial election day, meaning voting for various local commissioners.  In order to maintain control over the balloting, the police, army and border guards situate themselves in a very few towns where polling takes place.  In some cases, villagers have to walk an 8 hour round trip to vote....and they do!  Their turnouts for what might be considered a meaningless local election would put most countries to shame; throw in the effort it takes to vote here and I might be willing to argue that these are the folks in the entire world who most value their voting rights.

Villagers Hiking to the Polls
One thing I didn't realize (but that the guide should have) is that the roads are closed in Bangladesh during local elections, so our arranged jeep back to Bandarban wasn't going to happen that day.  The district chief of police later explained to me that it keeps violence and voter fraud (as in paying for votes and busing people to busable poll stations) to a minimum (as he put it "we're a more emotional than intelligent population and losses by our candidates are taken personally").  I certainly didn't want to spend another night with the emotional Alim, nor did he with I and he suggested that maybe I could talk with local officials and snag a ride back as a tourist.  I took his good advice and headed to an area near army HQs where the local police chief arranged a ride with the district head of police.  I had to wait in the chief's office and watch the results come in via phone while officers entered them onto a computer and checked and double-checked results.  Funny that my first experience with election control took place in a tiny town on the other end of the world.  Then I got into an 8 passenger jeep full of armed police and we drove what seemed like 100 mph on dark, windy roads back to my hotel in Bandarban where I'd left some of my stuff before the trek.  Really interesting ride as the district head was an extremely educated man (3 graduate degrees) whose perfect English allowed us to discuss Bangladesh history in great detail.  We both agreed that this is a country of the future, but that rapid development won't be far behind since people are hard workers and willing to do what's necessary to elevate their personal lives and that of their country.
Thanchi Bazaar on Election Day
Traveler Notes:

At this point, you'll never get deep into the CHT without getting lucky or paying handsomely for guide services (roughly $100/day per person....more if traveling single).  Don't expect the least bit of luxury if you want to get deep into the CHT (some agencies skirt this by ending each day in larger towns, but the large town hotels would qualify as ghetto hotels for many of us.  Take a mattress or pad with you if you're going to sleep on wooden floors (unless you've got a really young, strong back. If you use a professional agency, make sure you have a contract that's specific about what's included.  Perhaps the least expensive way to get a taste of the area is to base in places like Bandarban, Ruma or Thanchi (or other places in Rangamati District) and pay local guides 700-1000 taka per day ($9-12 depending on their English skills) for daily outings.  While I visited at least a dozen different villages deep in the interior, there wasn't a huge difference from one to another...some slightly different clothing, a little more prosperity in some places, so I could make the argument that if you just want to experience a little tribal life, you don't need to organize a complicated expedition.  But man, if you love hiking, get back in there for the incredible beauty. 


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