Saturday, January 28, 2006

Its too clean here!

As you know I’m here in Singapore and just exploring this island of many cultures and of that ever-present ‘Merlion’ thingamajig. It’s been a very surreal experience so far but I’ve been trying to squeeze as much out of the short time I have here as possible. I caught an early morning flight to Singapore which meant that I had a few hours to rest at my cousin’s place once I arrived, before heading out and exploring the city.

I’m sort of lucky to have not one but two personal tour guides in the shape of my two younger nephews who know the island back to front. The eldest one lives and goes to the top local school and the younger one lives in Sydney and is in Singapore for a few days before going back to school. As I was saying before, this is one very surreal place (probably not to the extent of Tokyo) but surreal nevertheless. Why? Because rarely do you find such a well developed country in a place like Asia where people of many cultures and backgrounds getting along with each other to make this the one of the most successful economies in Asia.

Granted it’s a very small and rather manageable country, but given what problems nearby countries like Thailand and to an extent, Malaysia are going through with their different ethnic groups, I’d say Singapore’s done pretty darn good. Everything from the bird flu epidemic originating in this region to terrorism, its all kept in check and the Singaporean government isn’t one to be messed with.

It’s a really strange social experiment – if I can call it that – they got going here, very few places on earth can boast total ethnic and religious harmony. Its as if the issue doesn’t really need to be discussed because its understood so well and it’s a given. Having said that you’ll always get a little racism and general backwardness here and there as my eldest nephew told me, referring to a few comments he gets from his Singaporean-Chinese schoolmates probably due to his dark skin.

Mild racial bigotry aside, this is a very – how shall I say – welcoming yet highly restrictive country. Yeah we all know how you’re not allowed to spit chewing gum (no shops sell chewing gum in this country) or throw cigarette butts on the streets here

Signs like this are a common site, no wonder the souvenir T-shirts say 'Singapore is a 'Fine' city!' You'll find out about the 'Durian' if you read on

Public transport

Everything here seems to work seamlessly and the public transport system here is no exception. We took decided to take the train Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) that criss-crosses the island to the more central parts of the city and I’ll tell ya, they got this whole ‘Clean-and-stay-clean’ thing down pretty good (see above picture). All trains as far as I know are driverless.

But I must say I just can’t seem to quite get my head around the idea of every single citizen of this country actually OBEYING the very strict laws here. And the amazing thing is there are very few CCTV cameras around to enforce these rules, this is of course in sharp contrast to here in the UK - I think we have the highest density of CCTV cameras in Europe and it still doesn’t seem to work here!

Downtown Singapore

Our first place to visit was the Padang (A Malay term for large expanse of space usually used for national events) and its surrounding areas next to the Singapore river and the central business district where all the tall buildings are. Just before that we broke for lunch and went to Burger King, and I’ve gotta say the variety of burgers here are so much more mouth-watering and ooze with local flavours and they’re just so ‘moreish’, you just want to have more. The ones back in England don’t even compare to these spicy burgers. Sorry, I just got carried away there trying to relive the taste-bud explosion, after all its ONLY a burger (I’m still trying to convince myself). I forgot to take a photo of it.

The central business district of Singapore

Same buildings but from the Singapore riverside

We also visited the famous Esplanade...

The Padang with the Esplanade in the background

Another view of the Esplanade from the riverside

...(locally called the 'Durian', after the well-known spiky and very smelly fruit)

See the resemblance with a Durian?

It’s a nice multipurpose building used for performances of all the arts and exhibitions, but the young nephews found it boring so I didn’t really get to hang around much to check out what was on that day or catch any particular exhibits etc.

So we settled for messing around with the camera in front of the Esplanade.

I couldn't quite get the camera level right for this picture and the one below, I was trying to go for a 'floating/kung-fu fighting on water' effect

As the clouds were thickening we decided to head underground and catch the MRT to Orchard road and the central parts of Singapore city. Orchard road is like the Oxford Street or Times Square of Singapore, it’s got all the glitzy shopping malls and hotels there and the streets are so clean and spotless I just couldn’t believe it. Since I’m on a tight budget I settled for a little window shopping amongst all the Boss and Armani stores and all that designer spiel.

After moseying all fancy shops we decided to call it a night and headed back home and home’s where I’m typing this up from before I hit the sack. Its so humid here that I need to take a shower twice a day, I just took one now and my T-shirts soaking again, better crank up that AC. That’s all for now folks!

Thursday, January 26, 2006

A thousand pardons...

Hello all! 'Tis I, your favourite slacker (make that travelling slacker). I am completely aware of my long absence on my blog but I assure you that there's a very good reason for it. First of all the fact that I'm making this entry into my blog is testament to the fact that I now have a very reliable and most of all fast internet connection which is required for uploading all the photos I've taken over my travels to fit in sequence with each entry.

Yes, I'm finally here! I'm in Singapore now and so I think I'll have more to write about.

But the work is not done yet as I'm still a few entries behind but hopefully my backlog of entries should quench your collective thirst to know my whereabouts. What you've got to do is scroll down this page through the back-dated entries I've made to get an idea of what I've been upto.

I'm currently writing this from my nephew's PC which is on a 10 megabyte connection (that roughly translates to 'Mucho rapido' or very fast for all you non-techies out there!) so I'll be having to play catch up on my travels so far as I go along. A proper official entry for this leg of my journey should follow, so you'll just have to bear with me...


If you haven't already done so, check out my last few entries starting with oldest first:

Welcome to the land of the Bengal Tiger (21/12/05)

Random thoughts from random spots (10/01/06)

'Cha' anyone? (19/01/06)

The ties that bind (21/0/06) - the one below

Saturday, January 21, 2006

The ties that bind

So we’re all back in Dhaka and as I briefly mentioned in the last post, the visits to the other places in the country will have to wait for another time. Probably cos’ the one thing I hate about visiting Bangladesh is the lack of even mundane things to do on daily basis. If it weren’t for the few sources of entertainment I brought with me (i.e. the books and Mp3 player and access to Dad’s laptop) I would’ve either lost my bearings and/or finalize my plans to go to Malaysia and Singapore.

Thankfully the latter materialized and I got Dad to pick the tickets up for me from the local Singapore Airlines agent in Dhaka because for one my Bengali sucks and I can’t let that get in the way of dealing with the booking agent and risk further embarrassment. Anyhow I’m due to fly out to Singapore from here in 5 days time for a two week backpacking tour of the island and onto Kuala Lumpur and Penang and/or Langkawi in Malaysia. It doesn’t seem like much but I haven’t gone backpacking before and I’ve got a tight budget so this will have to do for now.

Ok so that’s roughly my travel plans for there. After we all got back from Sylhet yesterday (the ‘coach’ was a tin can on four wheels) I sort of had a small succession of epiphanies, I think they were brought on by my experiences of sheer difference between the people I met in Sylhet and the ones in the city of Dhaka! By that I mean the down-to-earthness of the people I met in my Mom’s hometown of Comilla and those I met in Sylhet.

I think what I’m trying to get at is how we’re all insecure in our own little ways but these insecurities manifest themselves more or are at least more visible in city folk than those who lead a considerably simpler lifestyle. And you sort of see it more in developing countries because people’s desires are – how can I put it?, more primitive.
Everyone’s at each other’s throats when it comes to the acquisition of property, land, belongings etc. From the politicians in their daily mudslinging contests right through to the kids playing on the streets everyone has so much contempt for each other.

In the midst of it all – and more importantly as an observer, you realize that all this crazy behaviour is borne out of those more subtle and sensitive parts of the human psyche. Parts such as feelings of intense frustration, desperation and just general insecurity about our own existences.

For me personally, epiphanous revelations like this come and go usually but I refuse to let this particular universal notion of what makes us all human (and thus fragile beings) to just slip away and not have an active and positive impact on my ways of experiencing…well life really.

That’s enough ranting for today, next entry will come to you live (hopefully) from Singapore.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

'Cha' anyone?

Some children (and young adults I guess) wait with baited breath for their birthdays every year, you won’t find such behaviour with this fresh (yet very jaded) new 23 year old! In fact I completely forgot it was my birthday on the 17th of this month (donations would be much appreciated!), probably because A) I’d like to think I’ve grown out of it and B) We were all too busy enjoying ourselves with friends in the beautiful North Eastern district of Sylhet which is 150 miles outside of Dhaka, here's a refresher.

We stayed at the bungalow of the father and little brother of a close family friend from back in London, it was right in the sticks south of the local river Shorma. It was quite a nice scenic area with rice paddy fields as far as the eye could see surrounding the little village. I love how everyone seems to be related to everyone here and nobody’s a stranger, actually that can't always be a good thing over here.

Our main purpose for visiting Sylhet was to see a real working Tea estate where all you tea-guzzling people especially back in the UK get your morning and/or afternoon fix of this herbal beverage (locally known as 'Cha') from. I’ve always seen these tea gardens in pictures and packets of Typhoo tea but I wanted to see and get a feel for how the whole industry works.

Watch out for the snipers!

But first we visited a place called Zero point on the Bangladesh-India border, its more commonly known by the collective name of Jaflong-Tamabil and its famous for the large sized pebbles that roll downstream from the streams and rapids that hug the heavily forested hills. These hills serve as a natural border between the two countries. Rumour has it that if you try and cross the border into India you’ll get sniped at by Indian border guards from high up on the hills. A comforting feeling no doubt I think you’ll agree especially when you’re only yards away from the border!

Here are some photos for your viewing pleasure.

Approaching the Bangladesh/Indian border by rickety old boat, the indian border starts at the foot of the hills

Me on top of a mound of huge pebbles, these are naturally found here but get exported to India after being crushed to make cement

An educational birthday

The next day was my birthday (yay…) so we set out for my cousin’s house about 20 miles away from Sylhet town, her husband who is a doctor and professor used to be the resident doctor at a nearby tea estate until recently. Since we were late in arriving at his place and there wasn’t much daylight left we decided to go straight to that very tea estate in a place called Shamshernagar where his best friend is currently the serving doctor for the estate workers.

Enroute he filled us in on the various tea industry-related stories that I personally wasn’t aware of. I took my handy MP3 player along to record the conversations we had because I knew it was no short story.

He quickly cut through all the romantic notions one might get of tea estates on rolling hills - perhaps the ones from colonial times, right through to the bleeding heart of the sad stories of the tea workers. These are people who have been ‘imported’ from the economic backwaters of Orissa and other similar areas of India back in the 19th century during the days of the British empire.

Incase you didn't know what a tea worker looks like

The descendants of these workers still work the tea gardens and lead pretty lonely lives. Although not outcasts, they hardly ever venture into the nearby towns and villages. Because they are not properly integrated into the rest of Bangladeshi society their own language is somewhat left intact albeit with a few local dialects and vernacular. All their simple needs are met by the tea estate management who make sure the colonial tradition of economic dependence is intact. For example many of the workers have become quite addicted to some kind of local brew of alcohol.

This alcohol is heavily subsidised for tea estate workers – namely the tea-pickers, with one sole purpose: As long as they are hooked on this stuff, most of what little they earn from tea-picking goes on the booze thus keeping them on a short leash. The tea companies who run these estates I’m told, are pretty much forced to uphold these practices to prevent the simple-minded estate workers from wondering off and finding out there’s a better life outside of the tea-picking business.

What’s more, ordinary Bangladeshi folk won’t want to work in tea estates, its as if these poor simple people are simply a continuation of the long line of ‘specially bred’ tea-pickers brought over by the British.

This is just a tiny snippit of this huge tea estate

This is - I'm told, the brew from this particular tea garden

A Brief History of Tea

If my cousin’s husband’s correct, tea – as we now know it, was first discovered by Genghis Khan back in the 13th century who used to order his troops to only drink boiled hot water. Now since there’s only so much hot water one can drink before getting sick of it, the soldiers decided to add something for flavour, no prizes for guessing what that was. Granted, there are a few variants of this story but I can’t be bothered to look them all up! If you’re not satisfied with this one go to

The tea-picker’s wage

The average tea-picker on an estate gets paid around 32 Taka (approx 46 Cents) for 26 Kilos of green tea leaves per day, thereafter for every extra Kilo of tea leaves plucked, the worker gets 1 Taka (suffice to say that doesn’t even register on the currency exchange rate!). I can imagine picking 26 Kilos of tea leaf is no mean feat, and to imagine having the strength to pick another few extra Kilos is beyond my comprehension. Nevertheless when you’re very survival depends on it, I think THEN you’ll find the strength!

And when you blow a good portion of your earnings on cheap liquor, I guess there isn’t much left to do but twiddle your thumbs and wait for the next working day.

Divide and Rule

There’s a certain system that’s been lent down from colonial times till today and that is of the hierarchy system effectively dividing the upper management and doctors of a tea estate and the workers. If, for example a tea worker needs to visit the doctor he/she is not allowed to sit down in the doctor’s office, no matter what. This is purely because he/she is the worker and he/she is the doctor. This idea goes across the board and this particular legacy still exists today.

As my cousin’s husband explained to me, when he was stationed as the doctor at a tea estate the management of the tea company running the estate told him in very explicit terms that ‘you are to accept the 7 maid servants we provide you’. Can you imagine having 7 servants at your beck and call at the age of only 24?! What’s more is that they can’t do anything BUT serve you even if you have no need for them!

And now in this day and age of supposed equal rights for all, we’re told by the pricks who laid out these legacies of subservience in the first place that we need to ‘do more to improve the quality of life for those who live in such conditions’. And yet we still want cheap affordable tea, like coffee, like chocolate and like a whole host of other ‘quaint third world charms’.


Anyways I’ve digressed enough on this entry, but I must say the highlight of my trip to Sylhet, or Bangladesh was visiting a tea estate and if I had time I’d even go to the other places I alluded to in my 'Welcome to the land of the Bengal Tiger' entry and probably wax lyrical about them too. But if its not the Eid rush to the various beauty spots in the country it’s the weather that’s eventually played havoc with my original plans.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Random thoughts from random spots

Getting things planned and put into action over here is near impossible, I’ve pretty much been stuck here in Dhaka since I arrived. I’ve had to set back my plans to go to Sylhet because I got struck down with the mandatory bout of Diarrhoea the day before we were suppose to set off the next day, it’s practically a rite of passage when you come here. Once it’s over you’re ok to eat just about any kind of funky food although I still wouldn’t recommend it.

So its been over two weeks since we’ve been here, and my Mom’s sister’s not doing so well back in her hometown of a place called Comilla, it’s a small town about 60 Miles East of Dhaka, so Mom and I went to visit here and keep her company for a few days. A little known fact about Comilla: It was once used as a strategic Airbase by the Indians under the British during World war II to keep the advancing Japanese at bay, otherwise we’d all be speaking (and living like) Japanese by now, which in retrospect isn’t a bad thing given the lack of efficient and incorrupt governance you’ve got here today.

Having nothing to do out here can be a good thing or a bad thing, it’s a good thing when you want to ponder away life’s little intricacies and get some ‘me’ time, it’s a bad thing when you think a little too much about your place in life to the point where you’re left ineffective. I try and find myself somewhere in the middle of the two extremes because I’ve been at both ends and its never a good thing to be at any particular extreme.

So now I find myself lying in bed at night with nothing to read but at least I’ve got my MP3 player handy, its definitely a life-saver when you can’t get to sleep easily. The lyrics from some songs stick longer than others maybe because I guess I can relate to them on some level. So I thought I’d list a few excerpts from my favourite songs in no particular order probably because I’m feeling a little philosophical lately and these lyrics seem to sum up my view on life in general.

‘Someone right now is looking pretty tired staring at a laptop tryin’ to get inspired
Somebody, livin’ right across the street just wrote the best thing that she’s written all week’

- 'Right now' by Fort Minor

Somebody right now is droppin’ his vote inside a box and tryin’ to not get shot in his throat for the act of freedom,
Right now somebody’s stuck in Iraq hoping that he gets shipped back breathing in a war that he’s not really sure the reasons,
So we show our support when the press mislead ‘em’

- 'Right now' by Fort Minor

‘One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do,
Two can be as bad as one it’s the loneliest number since the number one,
No is the saddest experience that you’ll ever know,
Yes is the saddest experience that you’ll ever know’

- 'One is the loneliest number' cover by Filter

‘I am a man whose dreams have all deserted
I’ve changed my face I’ve changed my name
But no one wants you when you lose…

…Don’t give up cos’ you have friends
Don’t give up you’re not beaten yet
Don’t give up I know you can make it good’

- 'Don’t give up' by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush (probably one of the most inspiring songs
I’ve heard in a while)

‘I need some time and I want some space, I gotta get away from the human race’

- 'New York New York' by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

‘If only I could sleep for ten more minutes I might find the strength to make another day,
If I didn’t have to get up and do my thing I would probably sleep my whole life away’

- 'New York New York' by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

‘What you watch on TV tells you what life is suppose to be,
But when you look outside the only thing you see is the poverty-stricken reality’

- 'New York New York' by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

‘I dance to the beat and shuffle my feet,
Wear a shirt and tie and run with the creeps cos’ its all about money aint a damn thing funny,
You gotta have con in this land of milk and honey’

- 'The Message' by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

‘A child is born with no state of mind,
Blind to the ways of mankind,
God is smilin’ on you and he’s frowning too because only God knows what you gonna do’

- 'The Message' by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

‘…And now your eyes sing a sad sad song of how you lived so fast and died so young’

- 'The Message' by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five

And finally here’s one to mull over…

‘If you knew that you would die today and saw the face of God and love would you change, would you change?
If you knew that love can break your heart when you’re down so low you cannot fall would you change, would you change?
How bad how good does it need to get?
How many losses how much regret?
What chain reaction would cause an effect?’

- 'Change' by Tracy Chapman

Pessimistic and gloomy my choice of lyrics may appear to be but you can’t afford to not acknowledge the fact that these are everyday stories of everyday lives in this world of ours. Don’t worry everyone, Emran hasn’t gone suicidal on you, I just wanted to use this entry to help put my (and maybe your) everyday worries into perspective.

The gap between rich and poor is getting wider than ever, and its ever more apparent in poor developing countries like Bangladesh where the difference is blindingly obvious. Sure there are good people trying to make a difference but they’re usually few and far between. I guess the fact that most of the world’s NGO’s are working in this country must surely have a positive impact but the effects seem to be slow to come to fruition.

As always with societal ills the only suitable method tends to be Education. But it’s a tough battle seeing that you’ll always have some government and/or foreign fat cat official in his shiny chauffeur-driven BMW X5 driving past an old man rummaging around in a heap of rotting garbage on the roadside looking for scraps of food for him and his family.

So the next time you’ve got something to whine about REMEMBER, life’s much bigger than you, your wife (or husband or partner); 2.5 kids; that 25-year mortgage on the 4-bedroom house you just bought in the suburbs and other things we over-caffeinated, insatiable and self-indulgent fools like to gripe about.