Me, My Girl, and a Frost Free February #9: India, Bangladesh – India, Bangladesh

India: Chennai, Mahaballipurum, Pondicherry, Calcutta, Varanasi

Bangladesh: Dhaka, Chittigong, Cox’s Bazar, Teknaf, Khagrachari

January 14, 2003

To give or not to give? Half the population of India (that’d be half a billion people) earns less money per day than I spend on a bag of chips in Canada. Not all of them are begging on the streets, but a fair number are. In Chennai (Madras) the pavement dwellers and beggars were out in full force.

I was walking towards a restaurant when a little girl, maybe five or six, grabbed onto me with one hand, and with the other started making gesturing motions to her mouth. “Chapati [bread] hungry. Chapati. Hungry, hungry.”

Did I:

  1. stop and give her a few rupees
  2. stop and buy her some food
  3. hurry on my way

If you chose c) hurry on my way, you are correct. I can give you some justification gleaned from other travelers in the same predicament. Such a small amount of money or food doesn’t really help. It’s much better to give money to organizations than individuals. And many beggars are exploited by “beggar mafias” � the money they collect is handed over to a beggar “king”. But the real reason I gave the little girl nothing was none of these. She was one of a couple dozen people who had asked me for money that day, and one of thousands over the course of the trip. Somewhere along the line my brain switched over from sadness and pity to irritation, especially with kids. Disabled beggars are easy to avoid � they can only drag themselves along so fast. Kids, no matter how malnourished, naked and dirty, are more spry. They cling for blocks, a tenacious physical manifestation of my guilt. Journalist Marc Tully, when asked how he dealt with poverty in India replied, “I don’t have to. The poor do.” On one hand he’s correct. But on the other, he couldn’t be more wrong.

One place in India that thinks it has the answer is the bizarre little world of Auroville. Just outside of Pondicherry this model community (in theory moneyless, in harmony with nature, and open to all) follows the teachings of Sri Aurobindo, and the Mother. These two spiritual leaders are deceased, but more than 1500 Aurovilians (and many long term guests) from more than 30 countries continue to live and work in a vast array of architecturally interesting buildings spread in a spiral shape around the heart of Auroville, the Madrimandir.

Helene and I lined up (the only line up we ever experienced in India – usually it’s push and shove) with thousands of Indian tourists and a few Westerners. First we stood in line to get a pass to get a ticket, then to get the ticket, then to deposit our shoes and bags, and finally to shuffle silently towards what looks like a giant golfball studded with gold plated satellite dishes. Inside the Madrimandir (still under construction) we inched (in a spiral, of course) toward our final destination, the chamber at the heart of the sphere. I glimpsed some white pillars, felt a breath of A/C and was prodded on my way by a tight-lipped Aurovilian determined to keep the line moving.

Over the next couple of days Helene and I zipped around the “town” on a moped. The gardens were off limits as were the beaches and we didn’t want to bother people in their homes. The visitors’ centre gave us some information and a pitch for donations. We were allowed in restaurants and shops, where payment is accepted in cash. Many of the items in the shops are sewn by Indians from neighboring villages who are involved in Aurovilian development projects, though not necessarily “citizens” themselves. According to the stats we saw, there are quite a number of Indian Aurovilians, though the town itself has a distinctly Western flavor. Eating in the restaurants, surrounded by white faces in brightly colored Indian cotton clothing, we could have been in San Francisco on a summer day.

We headed north to Kolkata where we checked out the headquarters of another spiritual order. Though the Sisters of the Missionaries of Charity were closed to visitors on the day we arrived, one nun was kind enough to let us enter and view the tomb of Mother Theresa. I put on my best “I am a Catholic” act and succeeded in looking (I think) remarkably pious. Rather less imposing than the golden golfball, Mother Theresa’s simple tomb was covered with flowers and notes left by pilgrims. The walls around it were adorned with hand written posters detailing her life and work, those things I find easy to agree with (feeding the hungry, helping the sick) and unconscionable (denying the need for the use of condoms in a country where the spread of AIDS is astronomical).

We had plans to whip across to Varanasi before heading to Bangladesh. Time was tight � we’d take a 14 hour overnight train there, spend two days and one night, and then take an overnight train back. Temperatures were dropping and the first night in the 2nd class carriage was chilly. The morning found us in a town called Gaya. When a train employee came around taking orders for lunch Helene said “No thanks. We’re getting off in Varanasi.” The employee bobbed his head and moved on. A man in the seat across from us leaned over, “We are not moving until this evening. Twelve hour ban [strike].”

“What! That’s crazy. How far are we from Varanasi?” asked Helene.

“Mmmmmmm. Two hours.”
“Well, we’ll get off and take a bus.”
A laugh. “No no no. No bus.”
“Well, a taxi then. Surely there are taxis.”
“No no. No taxi. Impossible.”
“Why is there a ban?” I asked. The man shrugged.

“This is ridiculous,” muttered Helene. “I want a second opinion.” She stormed off the train, past the homeless families huddled under inadequate blankets and next to tiny fires.

“He’s right,” she said when she came back. She’d gathered the extra information that it was a “politically motivated ban” and that Varanasi was actually 3½ hours away.

We would now have very limited time in Varanasi. More worrying, however, was that for half a day we were in that most dangerous of positions: stationary. Beggars arrived with startling frequency both inside the train and out of the window. I climbed to the upper bunk where I could hear but not see Helene or the beggars. At some point she made a tactical mistake, broke down, and handed over some food. Within minutes packs of children descended on her. The no’s and hand waves weren’t working and her voice got louder and louder, speaking words they couldn’t understand.

“No, no. I can’t. I can’t help you. I can’t feed you all. I’m sorry you’re starving and you have nothing and I have everything but it’s not my fault. I can’t help you. I’m sorry. I know it’s not fair. Why do you always come to the foreigners? Why don’t you ask other Indians? No. No…”

There was no way I was climbing down. She was on her own. Eventually an Indian man shouted at the pack, and the kids ran away. I descended to eat lunch. Even when I turned my back I could feel the mournful eyes of a child crouched on the ground near the disgusting hole-in-the-floor toilet. And through the open window things were no better.

The train ended up being six hours from Varanasi, meaning that Helene and I spent less than 24 hours in the world’s oldest living city. After taking a boat up and down the Ganges, past pilgrims bathing in and drinking the Holy water, people washing clothes and linens, children playing, cows sleeping and bodies burning, we went back to the train station on the first leg of the journey to Bangladesh.

For a while it had seemed that we wouldn’t be able to gain entry to Bangladesh. We had called the embassy in Sri Lanka.

“Hello. I’m a Canadian who would like to get a tourist visa for Bangladesh.”
“Um. To be a tourist.”

“Why do you want to go to Bangladesh? Do you know someone?”
“Uh. No. I just want to see some of Bangladesh.”
“Not possible.”
“Not possible? But why not?”
“Go back to Canada.” Click.

We thought we’d have more luck in Kolkata. Rules were strict. Pick up applications at 9:15-10:15. Hand them in 10:30-11:30. Pick up visa 4-5. Or at least that’s how it was supposed to work. There were an Australian mum and daughter who, as they begged for the visas they’d been promised the day before, were missing their flight. Four friends from Slovenia were there for the second time as well. According to the Bangladeshis, their country didn’t exist, and they, therefore, could not be given visas. The Slovenians were armed with written assurances from their government that the country did in fact exist and were trying desperately to hand these to someone. Helene and I filled out our forms, compete with such essential information as our fathers’ middle names, left our passports and $50US. No receipt, of course.

At 3:45PM we were back, hoping we wouldn’t be heading to the Canadian embassy to explain why we were passportless. The Australian mum and daughter were back too, having changed their flight to one that left at 5:30. Four o’clock arrived, then 4:15, 4:30, 4:45. The visa window remained closed, and the Australians resigned themselves to the fact that they had missed another flight. By 5PM a few souls, discouraged, wandered off. But perseverance paid off, and at 5:15 the little window opened and a voice called out “Canada!” Amazingly the Slovenians received their visas just after us. They were a little peeved that they’d been classified as Croatian, but comparing receipts we realized they’d been charged ¼ of the fee we had, and that cheered them up immensely.

In 2002, for the second year in a row, Bangladesh was rated as the most corrupt country in the world. Unlike India it does not boast a wealth of cultural or archeological treasures. It is extremely poor, suffers from religious tensions, has received more than its share of natural disasters, and was recently accused (most famously by Time Magazine) of harboring droves of Al-Qaeda terrorists. The chief selling point of Bangladesh, according to the Lonely Planet guide book, is that there are no other tourists around. We were not there strictly to be tourists (which is lucky, because whenever we walked on the street, we were the tourist attraction, with people falling over themselves to point at us and laugh) but so that Helene could visit a couple of projects run by the NGO she works for, Medecins Sans Frontiers. MSF runs two projects in Bangladesh: medical clinics in the area north of Khagrachari (I traveled to Khagrachari, but not further, because of security concerns), and at a refugee camp near Teknaf, in the south.

The refugee camp is for Rohingya refugees, from Rakhine State in Myanmar (Burma). It’s not a new situation � subject to discrimination and harassment in Myanmar, the Rohingya tribespeople have been crossing the small finger of water that divides the two countries for some time. The two largest exoduses were in 1978 and 1992. No offense to the people of Bangladesh, but I can assure you that if people are going there hoping for a better life, things are pretty dire. Since 1992 most of the refugees have melted into Bangladesh or been “repatriated” to Myanmar (often with offers of such goodies as a year’s worth of rice and some cash when they return). Many, however, remain, figuring things are better in Bangladesh. About 13,500 of them are at the Nyapara camp, where MSF runs a medical clinic.

Making origami with the kids

Making origami with the kids

In the camp, as we walked around with some of the MSF workers, we were surrounded by children screaming “falai” (foreigner) at the top of their lungs to alert their compatriots to the unbearably exciting news of our presence. I had kids hanging off my hands and arms, and a couple more tugging on the dupatta (long scarf) I wore in a useless attempt to avoid sticking out too much. I made a couple of origami items from scrap paper and was mobbed by grabbing hands and anxious faces. When Helene took out the camera to take a picture, there was a minor riot. I considered singing a song, but decided such an event might cause someone (possibly me) bodily harm.

We were following Patrick, a nurse, to check on a little girl who was sick with typhoid and who had just been discharged from MSF’s clinic. We found her inside a hut, lying on a mat on the mud floor, totally expressionless. Two snot-nosed younger siblings huddled in the corner while the kids outside lifted up the plastic walls so they could peer inside so as not to miss a moment. The grandmother appeared, and offered us tiny woven seats. They had to be tiny. Five people lived in the shack. It was about 14 x 10 feet, and maybe four feet high. Through a translator the grandmother told Patrick that her granddaughter was the third person in the family who had recently had typhoid. She furtively passed a letter to Clea, the MSF project co-ordinator. Clea couldn’t read it, but she knew what it said because she gets them all the time. The family was terrified. The father and mother were in hiding. They had been cleared for repatriation to Myanmar, and they didn’t want to go. Clea told the woman to go and talk to a representative from the United Nations High Commision on Refugees � they are responsible for protecting refugees.

For ten years this family has been living on rations of rice, lentils, oil, flour, sugar and salt (donated by the World Food Program and handed out by the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society) which are weighed out once every two weeks. They get about 10 litres of water per person per day, to drink, wash and clean. There are no other facilities � no playgrounds or toys. Kids are bribed to come to school with the promise of a biscuit. I asked another little girl (again through a translator) if she liked school. She said it was OK, but sometimes the teacher told kids not to come back.

People in the camp have planted tiny gardens next to the disgusting squat latrines, so that they can enjoy a zucchini every once in a while. The wells are inadequate. The government of Bangladesh doesn’t want to improve facilities for fear that more refugees will come. And to be fair, it’s not like the government of Bangladesh is rolling in cash. The United Nations High Commision on Refugees wants to find a “lasting solution”. It seems pretty clear that everyone who runs the camp would like to close it. But there’s this nasty problem of 13,500 people who don’t want to leave, even with that tempting rice settlement…

A child treated for infected scabies bites

A child treated for infected scabies bites

MSF isn’t political. They run the organization mostly on private funds and have projects all over the world (including India). They were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a few years back. In Nayapara camp they run an outpatient clinic (treating lots of infected scabies bites – there was an endless parade of kids painted purple with some kind of antiseptic), an inpatient clinic (malaria, typhoid and other diseases and ailments that I thought vanished after the Second World War) and a feeding centre for malnourished kids, moms and babies (ironically located right next to the food distribution centre). The other part of their mandate is to “witness” and try and remind people in developed countries what’s going on.

“At least the refugees have some food and somewhere to sleep and medical care,” I said to Clea, thinking of the slums I’d seen in Delhi, and the hungry pavement dweller girl who had followed me in Chennai.

“Yeah. But they have nowhere to go,” she said. And she’s right. Stuck in a holding pattern since before ER went on the air in North America (yes folks, before George Clooney), they’re forbidden to leave the camp, forbidden to work and too scared to go back to Myanmar. It might have been a bit difficult for me to get into Bangladesh, but I had somewhere to go when I got there and somewhere to go when I left. If I eat rice and lentils, it’s by choice and I eat until I’m full.