Dani and I spent the first week of our Christmas vacation on Koh Samui, a Thai island famous for miles of beaches and crammed with thousands upon thousands of sun-seeking tourists like us. We arrived at our house rental after an overnight sleeper train, bus transfer and ferry journey with our five travel companions and settled in for a week in paradise...sort of.
We decided to rent scooters and they arrived on our second day in Samui. It’s a long, long story and I don’t have the patience or humility to regale you all with the dirty details here but let’s just say I was involved in a series of unfortunate and extremely expensive mistakes involving the aforementioned scooter. I was both a novice scooter driver and a klutz. But on the bright side, after mastering the fine art of ramming scooters into a cars, things went fairly smoothly!
We entered a rotation of days spent relaxing at the villa and exploring the island on our motos. Renting our own scooter was liberating and gave us the freedom to zip off where we wanted without the hassle of bargaining for taxi or tuk tuk prices. Plus it was a blast! Definitely on the list of things we’ll be doing again.
Probably the highlight of the island itself for me was hiking in to see the boringly named but beautiful “Waterfall 2.” After a short hike through jungle filled with whining cicadas, I cannonballed into a pool at the base of one of the smaller cataracts for a refreshing dip that was both fun and served the additional purpose of cooling down grimy, sweat-soaked Jon.
You would think that as Koh Samui is marketed as an island paradise that the beaches would be...you know, ‘paradisey.’ Unfortunately, I was underwhelmed by the quality of the beaches on the island. The beaches themselves were small but relatively nice on the whole…they were just jam packed with (to quote Dave’s amazing line) “my body is a work of art” European crowd in speedos and touts aggressively offering their normal collection of cheap scarves, bracelets etc. On the whole, if any of you dream of beaches and are contemplating a trip to Koh Samui for your fantasy of an idyllic Thai beach vacation, I recommend you look elsewhere.
The saving grace wasn’t so much what the island itself offered though; it was the wonderful people we shared Christmas with! Last year we spent Christmas all alone in a Sri Lankan mountain hotel and, although we had fun, it didn’t feel remotely like Christmas. This year, we were surrounded by friends, we watched Christmas movies, ate Christmas cake and puddings (Both new to me. Thanks Sam!), ate a solid Christmas dinner involving a kilo of Jamaican jerk ribs and a half kilo of buffalo wings and opened presents together. Sam, Alicia, Emily, Shannon and Dave, thank you all so much for making the holidays feel like home! We love you all!
We had a great holiday in Koh Samui and although I don’t plan on visiting the island again any time in the near future (or ever), my memories of the holiday season spent there will last for a long, long time. Merry Belated Christmas! (And since I'm so late publishing this I'll say Happy New Year!)
The holiday season away from home, especially in a Muslim country, is inherently different than the cozy Canadian Christmas Dani and I love so much. The warm kaleidoscope of Christmas lights adorning frosted houses is absent; Dhaka sports only cold, whitewashed concrete. Misty exhalations into icy air are replaced with coughing fits from breathing too much polluted street dust. Colorful wrapping paper choices are limited. Few kids are enthralled with Santa. I even, to my own great surprise, miss the incessant blare of cheap Christmas tunes as I meander through the mall frantically searching for Dani’s gifts. For a variety of reasons such as the tropical climate, grinding poverty and Muslim religious practices, Bangladesh doesn’t seem to offer much by way of Christmas cheer. It seems hard again, for the second year in a row, to fully register that this is actually Christmas.
Dani and I both have fathers who missed Christmas regularly traveling internationally for work. I don’t believe either of us truly realized the loneliness of being away from family at Christmas until last year…and Dani and I had each other! The lyrics “I’ll be home for Christmas if only in my heart” certainly evokes a larger lump in my throat than it ever did before I moved abroad! Kudos to our fathers who sacrificed many Christmas seasons so we could afford turkey, cookies and presents under the tree. We love you!
In spite of our ruminations on how lonely we feel in the Christmas season and how much we miss such and such a food or such and such a person, we have managed to find ways of bringing the holidays to life here in Bangladesh. We bought a fake tree and decorated it with local ornaments, brought two large candles from Canada so our living room currently smells like candy canes and most importantly, Dani has been making Christmas cookies. I am extremely happy! And perhaps a glutton…but hey, Christmas cookies come only once a year!
I also bought Christmas coasters from Folk International that I am oddly excited about. Yes, you heard me. I’m pumped about Christmas coasters. Not that I’ll ever use them but they are hand-painted and made of pure Awesome with a capital A.
In the spirit of the season, I modified a version of Bangladesh 12 Days of Christmas below. Sing it out loud, you’ll have great fun!
On the ______ day of Christmas Bangladesh gave to me…
A Case of Dysentery
Two Plates of Phuckha
Three Roaches Running
Four Students Tardy
Six Cans of Hunter
Seven Power Blackouts
Eight Rickshaws Racing
Nine Mosquitos Biting
Ten Beggars Begging
Eleven Men a Staring
Twelve Cars a Honking
The holiday season is different here in South Asia but we’ve managed to make it our own. There are traditions and family members from Canada that we miss intensely but there are exciting unfamiliar traditions to begin, exotic locales to explore and new people to love here in South Asia as well. The trick is to remember this fact when we feel the ache of homesickness in the pit of our stomachs.
Last year we went to Sri Lanka for Christmas and we’re traveling again over the holidays this year. Today we’re headed off to Thailand with a group of great friends. We’ll eat food, play games, listen to Christmas music, sit by the pool and relax. I am completely psyched! I’m going to read Dickens’ Christmas Carol for the first time ever (I should have read it eons ago), devour some Bonhoeffer and C.S. Lewis and I’m hoping to finish Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. That amount of reading may be ambitious but I’m certainly not going to be reading any work emails! Woot! Woot!
Well, that’s all for the moment. In the iconic words of Mr. Santa Claus, Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night! Or, as Bengalis say here in Bangladesh, Shubo Boro Din!
Well, it’s Victory Day here in Bangladesh. School is out, I slept in till nine o’clock this morning and the Bangladeshi national anthem is on repeat, constantly blaring through impossibly loud speakers several blocks away. The words are permanently seared into my memory now and, I’m sure that as I attempt to sleep tonight, Amar shona Bangla ami tomay bhalo beshi eeeeee, will course nonstop through my brain.
Victory Day is a local holiday celebrating Bangladesh’s bloody war of independence from Pakistan. Exactly forty two years ago, Pakistan officially surrendered after a short but brutal war that resulted in the murder of (Pakistan claims 26,000, US sources quote 300,000, Bangladeshis will tell you 3 million…we all know how history can be!) Bengali civilians. I won’t get into the details but the war crippled the country and has really shaped and molded Bangladeshi national identity.
Last year, I was astounded at the enthusiastically patriotic nature of Bangladeshis. I naively assumed no one would be proud of a country racked by poverty, cyclones, corruption, ridiculous traffic, pollution and political violence. I was wrong. Swarms of Bangladeshi flags, which represents a pool of a martyrs blood in a green field, adorn rickshaws, CNGs, businesses, houses, cars, bicycles and pretty much anywhere else you can affix a flag. Bangladeshis are proud of their country and that makes me happy in a weird, hopeful way. Bangladesh has many problems but the country has so many things to be proud of as well.
As Dani and I biked around the city today, the majority of people wore the national colors of red and green (conveniently coinciding with the Christmas theme), loudspeakers broadcast speeches from the 70’s (prelude and postlude by the aforementioned national anthem), and people seemed to be smiling more than normal. Although I purchased a Bangladeshi flag last Victory Day, I bought a little headband from the dude below and, as a result, received dozens of smiles, thumbs up, waves and shouts of “Joy Bangla”, the slogan chanted by Bangladeshi fighters during the Liberation War, as we ran errands. I was reminded just how important history is for average, ordinary, even illiterate person and how the lens we use to view the world is shaped by our personal and communal history.
That’s all for now. Happy Victory Day and Joy Bangla!
If you have followed South Asian news via CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera over the past few months, you already know that Bangladesh is in the throes of violent political turmoil. Immature competition between the ruling Awami League and opposition BNP has polarized the country resulting in general strikes called hartals and, more recently (and christened with a much cooler name in my opinion), violent road blockades termed oborods. On the whole, we aren’t affected much by the unrest but the violence does worm its way into our lives from time to time.
Internationally publicized clashes between protesters and police invariably lead to enthusiastic (and very helpful by the way Mom :-) exhortations from our parents to “be careful” and canned emails from the Canadian and American embassies warn us to stay in the little bubble of a diplomatic zone. I’ve reproduced an email we received yesterday that’s almost identical to dozens of other emails we receive on an unfortunately regular basis:
You are receiving this email because you are registered with the Government of Canada's Registration of Canadians Abroad service. Please share the following important information with other Canadian citizens in your area.
The BNP-led 18 party alliance has called for another 72 hour blockade of roads, railways and waterways across Bangladesh beginning at 6:00 am on Saturday December 7, 2013 until 6:00 am Tuesday December 10, 2013. The BNP has also called for a 24 hour hartal which is scheduled to start at 6:00 am on Sunday December 8, 2013. Violence is expected throughout the country.
Recent hartals and demonstrations have deteriorated into violence which has included Molotov cocktail blasts, vehicles being torched and the use of firearms by protesters and police alike.
Canadians should remain vigilant at all times, avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings, follow the advice of local authorities and monitor local media.
Etc. Etc. Etc.
No offence to embassy staff but the people who write these emails clearly don’t possess a thriving imagination. It doesn’t really matter what is happening in Bangladesh…the emails all say pretty much the same thing: “remain vigilant at all times.” Well thanks for that! You have to remain vigilant simply to survive the traffic here…I don’t think receiving an email reminding me to steer clear of angry, cocktail-throwing crowds is going to save my skin any time soon. These warning emails would be much more exciting if they injected the occasional zombie outbreak in Chittagong, alien attack in Bogra or unicorn sighting in the Sundarbans. I would certainly read them more carefully!
I think the biggest impact that hartals have on us is at school: our kids don’t come! Some parents are reluctant to send their kids because protesters often torch vehicles during their strikes without regard to the fact that people are riding in them. Sometimes my attendance is down by 50% or more, which results in a butt-ton more work for me because I have to send work home as well as teach the students who actually come. It’s almost double the workload! It’s pretty tedious when day after day, week after week students are absent and you are still responsible for teaching them anyway but c’est la vie.
Police are extra visible on hartals compared to normal days (although the phrase “normal day” is a bit of a paradox in a hectic megacity like Dhaka) and they sport fashionably scarred riot gear bearing the scuff marks of chaotic street battles with protesters. They also brandish their archaic rifles a bit more proudly than normal days…but I highly doubt they would actually discharge. The RAB (Rapid Action Battalion) guys are also out in force, clothed in black from head to toe. They are significantly more intimidating than the common green-shirt police. Rumor has it they have a license to kill, they wear dark sunglasses and black bandannas, carry some serious weaponry and haven’t cracked a smile since they were babies. Well, maybe they smile sometimes, but they are definitely not the right guys to mess with!
The most positive side effect of hartals for us is fact that Dhaka is quiet. To a degree, it’s nice to have a break from the incessant blaring of bus horns and the squealing of tires. Biking is more peaceful and life moves at a slower pace. Running errands, provided they’re in the diplomatic zone, is quicker and on the whole, I feel more laid back on hartal days. We have heard and felt occasional bomb blasts from our apartment but we honestly feel safe on the whole.
In spite of the apocalyptic news reports on T.V. back home, we are okay and the violence in Dhaka hasn’t really affected us that much. Let’s hope it stays that way!
I don't often do the whole newspaper editorial thing. I have found that, in the past, my letters to the editor go unpublished and I end up frustrated that my opinions have fallen on deaf ears. With the death of Mandela and the ensuing empty political rhetoric here in Bangladesh, I felt I had to write something to send to the Daily Star, Dhaka Tribune and other English language newspapers in Bangladesh. I feel like it might be a little out of place here on SSN as it's historically been more of a travel blog than an outlet for my political tirades but oh well. This is what I sent in to the English newspapers here in Dhaka:
The Bangladeshi government has called for three days of official mourning for the passing of Nelson Mandela. Politicians from across the Bangladeshi political spectrum have sent flowery condolences to the people of South Africa and flags at all government and semi-government institutions in Bangladesh are flying at half-mast to commemorate Mandela’s inspirational life and reconciliatory ideals. Sadly, the hollow rhetoric spewed by Hasina and Khaleda exposes the hypocrisy of Bangladeshi political leaders.
In an official letter to South African President Jacob Zuma, BNP leader Khaleda Zia called Mandela “an icon who chose reconciliation over revenge” while Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina claimed that Mandela serves as a guide for all those fighting for world peace. These empty words from two warring political families stand in stark contrast to the daily reality on the streets. How can Zia celebrate Mandela’s reconciliatory ideas while simultaneously encouraging violent blockades that have killed dozens of innocent bystanders in the past few weeks? How can Hasina laud Mandela’s peaceful example as she violently stamps out political opponents and stubbornly refuses to make a compromise that could lead to peace?
As Bangladeshi political leaders write letters and craft speeches honoring Mandela, buses are being torched with people inside, property is being destroyed, protestors are being beaten and innocent bystanders are dying…all with the silent approval of Hasina and Zia.
Rather than paying lip-service to Nelson Mandela, the rulers of Bangladesh should strive to learn from him. During a speech in 1998, Mandela issued a challenge to political leaders around the globe by stating that "Real leaders must be ready to sacrifice all for the freedom of their people." To date, Hasina and Zia have not demonstrated a willingness to sacrifice for the freedom of their own people. Hopefully, someday, they will learn from Mandela’s example, forgive each other, and work together to achieve the peace and political reconciliation Bangladesh desperately needs.
I hope I didn't bore you with yet another trademark Jon Ryan political rant. I just felt like I had to get that out of my system!