Eluding the long arm of the cellphone isn't easy in poor–but–connected Bangladesh. In a land this jam–packed with people, neither is finding some personal space.
Breakfast in Bangladesh: we're surrounded by a solid wall of people. Crowds of the curious and the excited press in for a close look at the foreigners and their strange red boats.
Unfortunately, cellphone reception in this remote part of the north is excellent, and the word has gotten around. A crowd of at least 60 has gathered at our campsite—a site we believed to be in the middle of nowhere. The women—all grouped together, young and old—criticize the amateur cooking of eggs and rice. Cheeky boys delight in mimicking our every movement and vocalisation. And the men gather to study the marvellous kayaks in great detail. They debate the functions of the kayak parts, deciding that the rear hatch must be the toilet, because Bangladeshi fishing boats have an overhanging structure at the back that serves this purpose. They are amazed by the blowing of air into the sides of the kayaks to streamline them in the water.
What are we doing here? For better or for worse, we've launched two expedition tandem kayaks into the Teesta River, up by the Sikkim border. The idea is to paddle downstream and experience Bangladesh at a very slow pace—feeling the pulse of the river, seeing village life, and seeing the impact of climate change first–hand. The locals assume we are surveyors, as these are the only foreigners they have ever seen in these parts.
Crowds like this, we quickly discover, require skilled management. Otherwise, they will consume you. First, you have to delegate crowd control to someone in authority. The villagers have a hierarchy. Find the ringleader.
A bearded man with a shawl seems like the best candidate: he is given the policing job. It's a diplomatic role that he appears to enjoy very much. Second, draw a line in the sand: establish a perimeter with a do–not–cross line. That way you have a workspace where you won't trip over people. The kayaks and tents have been used to form a perimeter on three sides, and I lay the kayak paddles down to seal the fourth side to delineate the no–go area.
But a problem quickly surfaces. They love the paddles! These carbon–fibre paddles—from Scotland—are incredibly light. Added to which, nobody here uses a double paddle. All paddling is done with a single oar. They keep picking up the paddles to examine them. We don't want someone walking off with a paddle, so I set up a new "barrier," improvised from life–jackets.
And the most important facet of crowd management: do not get folks excited. A riot might break out. We are somewhat apprehensive when photographer Jock pulls out his magical digital camera to take pictures (resulting in big crowds trying to see the results). But it turns out we need not be too concerned about this. In a novel role reversal, we discover the locals are also taking digital pictures of us—with their cellphones.
Crowds Upon Crowds Upon Water
Breakfast is a startling introduction to one of Bangladesh's top problems. People. There are far too many of them in this small nation. Too many mouths to feed, not enough resources. Not enough water to irrigate the fields of rice, the staple food of the nation. There is talk of introducing population limiter measures such as a one–child–per–family stipulation. The current head–count is around 162 million Bangladeshis and growing fast.
Next problem: imagine a large percentage of the previous paragraph under water, with 30 million climate refugees. Solutions for adapting envision a floating world: floating gardens, floating hospitals, floating schools, even floating pets (geese).
When cyclones strike in the south, many are killed simply because they have no idea that disaster is heading their way. There are plans to use cellphones to warn of such impending catastrophe. Mobile operators Grameenphone and Teletalk are working on a trial system to send early warning alerts to their 46–million–plus cellphone users. Unlike normal text messages, these warnings flash automatically on the phone screen without users having to push a button. Advertising billboards in Bangladesh show fishermen and farmers using cellphones. The coverage is that good—probably because the nation is dead flat.
There are six cellphone providers. The most popular cell company is Grameenphone from Norway; other providers are from companies based in Singapore, Malaysia and Egypt. And with this competition, rates are very cheap. In one of the poorest places on earth, where half the population earns less than two dollars a day, people can still afford cellphones. Mind you, cellphones are very cheap to operate in Bangladesh. Buy a SIM card for $5 in Dhaka, top the account up, and you're good to go country–wide.
In remote villages, the biggest problem is how to charge the cellphone batteries (in the absence of electricity). This has been partly resolved by using solar–panel chargers.
I have never been on a trip to a remote area where cellphone reception is so good. We get lost on sandbars, lose our way along the river channels—and end up phoning between kayaks to trade news on the best direction and the deepest water. It's like having a shortwave radio at our disposal. We can even phone for advice on logistics from a knowledgeable person in Dhaka.
But cellphones are a curse too. Our Bangladeshi paddlers Gini and Jamal keep fielding calls from Dhaka and beyond—from wife, girlfriend, or friends—so they're constantly yakking away. You cannot paddle and answer a cellphone at the same time, and this cellphone chatter breaks the spell of silence and remoteness. This comes to an end if either of them run out of battery power or account top–ups. But then they conspire to traipse off to a nearby village to restore their precious cellphones to working order.
We throw ourselves into many more large crowds along our river route. In fact, any place where we go ashore is bound to spontaneously generate a huge crush of human bodies. Itâ€™s just like crowd–surfing at a rock concert, except that our version involves kayaks. But we get better at dealing with the masses. We get craftier: instead of hauling the kayaks ashore, we dock them further out in the water, tied up to a handy fishing boat. Still, having a few hundred people watch you while you eat lunch can be very disconcerting.
As for camping, we become adept at sizing up how far away villages are. The further away, the better. We develop a strategy for campsites: wait till the sunset has almost set, quickly throw up tents, and rise early next morning to take off again—before crowds can congregate. At one campsite, we convince a nearby fisherman to watch over our kayaks and gear while we sleep. He will be awake all night fishing, so why not do double duty as a watchman? And then we'll buy the night's catch off him for breakfast! Seems like a perfect plan.
But when we wake up, he has disappeared. The fishing boat has gone. No fish for breakfast.
If You Go
This is a travel story: the idea behind most travel stories is to encourage you to visit the featured destination. I hesitate to recommend Bangladesh though unless you have a big appetite for logistics and don't mind sacrificing your privacy for a few weeks (you will be stared at constantly). On the plus side, opportunities for people photography are terrific, with many subjects patiently posing. And foreign travellers are few and far between.
In fact, one of the official tourism promotion posters reads as follows:
VISIT BANGLADESH BEFORE TOURISTS COME
Michael Buckley is author of a number of books related to travel in Asia and the Himalayas. He has a website with Tibet books at: www.himmies.com/. And a website connected with a short documentary on the rivers of Tibet and problems with Chinese mega–dams at: www.MeltdowninTibet.com
Picnicking at the Ruins of Angkor by Michael Buckley
Apocalypse Soon: On the Lemanak River of Sarawak by Graham Reid
Breakfast in Bhutan by Michael Buckley
On a Slow Boat down the Irrawaddy River by Jim Johnston
Other Asia travel stories from the archives
Books from the Author: