Travels in Bengal, San Francisco, November 5, 2005
Being an account of Bart and Michael's travels in Bengal.
Arr: Kolkata, Nov 26.
Ret: SFO, Dec 24.
at least in theory.
Six years ago, I traveled with my friend Michael Mery to northern India by plane, train and bus. To let our friends and family know what we were up to, we sent email from a succession of Internet cafes to my wife, Sue, who forwarded them to a large and growing distribution list. (I wrote about that trip for the March 2000 issue of Software Design.)
Now, we were going again, this time to Kolkata (Calcutta) and Bangladesh, which together comprise Bengal. Again we wanted to share our adventures, but mass emailings seemed outdated. What we really needed was a blog, or rather, a "Travelblog": a Web log about our travels. Unlike email, blogs don't clog up a mailbox--readers come to the blog. And once they do, the entire narration of the trip is available, latest entry on top. Blogs can accept digital images (although, for logistical reasons, I didn't upload mine until we returned.) And there was another advantage. As a reporter, I had already written about blogs. The trip would be an opportunity to create my own and learn first-hand about the advantages and drawbacks of the medium.
The result is bengaltravels.
"You're going where?"
When our friends learned we would be traveling not just through India, but Bangladesh, they kept asking why we were going-especially as terrorists had set off some 400 crude bombs across the country last August. I found one good answer on a poster hanging in the Dhaka airport: "Visit Dhaka: before the tourists come." If you are going to travel, you might as well go to a place most people haven't been.
And besides, sitting on a beach, eating good food, and going to museums-the normal fair of many a vacation-are all pleasant activities, but they don't necessarily translate into good reading. Travel writers I admire like Eric Hansen and Paul Thoreau had kept me turning the pages because their travels had taken them to Borneo on foot and South America by train. The most-commented on entry in my travelblog was the night I had a stomachache. Much of the best travel writing is when you the reader are just as happy that someone else is doing the traveling.
December 15th: Sleepless in Dhaka. At least that was the case earlier this evening as I lay in relative agony from an unhappy stomach. Through every window came what sounded like the Islamic equivalent of an evangelistic prayer meeting, with an amplified cleric exhorting his congregation with ever-rising crescendos of passion. Or maybe it was a political rally. Hard to say, it sounded like both, but it went on and on, and there's nothing like the traveler's bug to transform a zest for travel into a longing for the familiar.
I understood one but word: Dhaka. "Dhaka! Dhaka! Dhaka," his voice blared in a direct feed to my tired brain. Was he saying we were all going to hell or just members of the opposition party?
Not that we were the only visitors to Bangladesh. During our stay, both Bill Gates and Ted Turner came to Dhaka. Gates, traveling with his wife Melinda, was there representing both Microsoft and the couple's foundation. Turner was representing the United Nations Foundation, which he founded back in 1998. (Japanese generosity was also much in evidence: Japan is one of the largest contributors to Bangladesh development projects.) In a small way, we were also involved in this effort, volunteering for a small San Francisco non-government organization called IDEX. Our report, typed up nightly from notes I took on a steno pad, would cover more than 50 pages.
Picking a blog host
There is no shortage of blogging sites ready and willing to host a blog. There are even sites dedicated to travelblogs. The Wikipedia "travelblog entry" lists TravBuddy, GetJealous, TravelPod, TravelBlog.
Blogger proved simple to set up, requiring just a few initial choices: the blog title ("Travels in Bengal"), privacy issues, how to deal with comments, whether to publish using Atom syndication (Google has stuck with Atom over RSS), and whether to include advertising (no thank you). The only big choice was the template: Blogger presented 31 possibilities, and after some experimentation, I picked the Zen-like "Simple II" for its clean, unencumbered, full-screen presentation.
Sue and I decided that she would have first crack at editing my entries before I embarrassed myself publicly. So she learned about Blogger's editing capabilities as well. As it turned out, she didn't quite know how much work that would entail, but it was too late: ten minutes after midnight on November 25th, Michael and I flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong, then Singapore, then, after a nine-hour stay that included a bus tour of the city-state, to the skies above Kolkata-where we couldn't land due to fog. Then back to Singapore via Bangkok, finally arriving in India a jet-lagged November 26th.
We were off and blogging.
Connecting with the Net
The obvious tool of choice for much travelblogging would appear to be a laptop. But laptops are too large for my tastes, especially the way we were traveling. Instead, I took my HP iPaq palmtop and a Bluetooth keyboard. At every place we traveled-Kolkata, Dhaka, Tangail, and Chittigong-I checked for WiFi hotspots. There were none.
And so we went back to the same means of connecting with the Internet we had used six years ago: Internet cafes. This was not necessarily a bad thing. A pleasure of travel is in doing things the way the locals do them. In both India and particularly Bangladesh, Internet-connected computers are an uncommon luxury-and Internet "cafes"-usually tiny, cramped, and filled mostly with young guys-are a way of life. (The term "cafe" doesn't quite apply here: the only food ever served is tea.) For the next month, they became our place to connect with home, update the blog, and catch up on world news.
Six years ago, all Internet sports connected through dialup. Now they all had DSL broadband. But I soon learned, especially in Bangladesh, that broadband does not equal a fast connection. As was the case from our previous trip, the connection was fastest in the morning and deteriorated over the day. And in places, that deterioration was so pronounced that it was actually slower than dial-up speed.
Dhaka, Bangladesh: Dec. 14th
The wait to log onto email this evening is a pretty good metaphor for the country at large: too many people looking for too few resources. So far, it is 20 minutes and counting (I'm writing this in Microsoft Word while I wait)-making it the single slowest Internet connection I've ever encountered. It is also a pretty good indicator of the difference between Bangladesh and India. India connections can be slow. This one is glacial. As I wait, mosquitoes are biting my legs.
But what Bengali Internet services lacked in speed, they made up for in companionship. That was especially true in the Belgharia, a northern district of Kolkata, where the proprietor, Prasenjit "Mana" Chakraborty, became our go-to-guy and friend. Mana operates his shop, Cybernetics, out of the same location where his grandfather practiced medicine. (The large sign above the entrance dedicates the shop to his grandparents' memory.) Mana helped us get plane tickets to Dhaka and a taxi to the train station. He helped me shop for a flashlight and paintbrush. And he did the translation from English to Bengali when I wanted to by a tabla drum set from the shop across the street. As Americans, we learned to leave our shoes outside the door of his shop when we wanted to use one of the five workstations-and found a cramped but welcome home inside.
When we flew to Dhaka, we realized how much we had been spoiled by India's comparatively advanced network infrastructure. We arrived on a Friday, the end of the week in the United States but the equivalent of Sunday in this Islamic country. And were told that no Internet cafe was open. Saturday looked more promising. We walked on the dusty side of the road dodging bicycle taxis. The first place we passed was closed, but a few blocks further, up a flight of stairs and past a tailor shop, was an Internet cafe with five workstations running XP and the Opera browser. One workstation was free. The speed was so slow that it took a few seconds for the typed letters to appear on the screen. The keyboard was also a challenge: so used that some keys have lost their spring. I decided to type everything in lower case.
We had less luck in Tangail, two hours north of Dhaka. There were no Internet cafes near our guesthouse, and for a few days, we were out of touch. Things got better in Chittagong, Bangladesh's second largest city. A five-minute walk brought me to an Internet place with a reliably good connection-when the electricity was running. Which, as I quickly learned, was not all the time. On my first visit, the connection died, the lights were reduced to the glow of a single fluorescent bulb-but my computer was still working, powered by a UPS. I saved my work to a word file, and waited....
Chittigong, Bangladesh Dec. 10, 10PM
We are six guys waiting for [the power] to be restored, surrounding a single candle. A few take out cellphones, glowing dark blue and light green in dim light. The guy sitting next to me is trying to read a newspaper. He is a pre-med student, age 24.
"Every time I see a tourist in Bangladesh, I ask him: "Why do you want to come here? We are now a terrorist country. We all want to get out." He shows me his newspaper, which is in Bangla. The Sanskrit is elegant to look out, but for a Westerner, meaningless. "Look," he says. In the candlelight, I make out a photo spread on the front page.
"They are all terrorists," he says, pointing. Like a lot of people here, he sounds completely depressed about it. Bangladesh is a country on the rise. Poor by our standards, but this Internet place has a reasonably fast broadband connection and everybody here except me is a local. So, to put what I'm hearing into Americanese--who the hell are these assholes trying to turn us into a damn theocracy? Or to put it as they put it: "This is not my Islam. My religion is about peace." Even the greeting says so: salaam aleichem (peace be with you). You hold your hand up as you say this, in almost a salute. And the reply: aleichem salaam (and with you, peace) pointing at your heart.
I ask him what his future will be. Will he become a doctor? "If God permits it," he says. He pauses, looking straight ahead. "I believe this. If God wants me to be a doctor, then I will be one."
One difference between a travelblog and other forms of travel writing is that the people you write about can see what you wrote-while you are writing it. To encourage this, I printed up a pack of business cards that contained a single line: bengaltravels.
And then there was the day I went to interview Vilas Maharaj, Michael's long-time friend and Hindu monk at the Ramakrishna Mission Calcutta Student's home. When I showed him my draft on my palmtop, he judged it incomplete and rewrote the entire interview himself. The result was longer than I would have written, but it sounded just like Vilas-I could "hear" his voice in the print. We published it intact on the blog together with a brief introduction-using a brown font to set it off. The interview became one of the most popular parts of the blog.
We also tried to encourage discussion among our readers about our trip and some of the issues we raised-and here we were less successful. The problem may be related to the blog format, itself. Readers can leave comments, but there's no easy way to see if any of the comments are new. As more blog entries bury the discussion, fewer people return to the comment section to continue it. Even on more widely read blogs that gather many comments, back-and-forth discussion is rare compared to any online bulletin board. Or perhaps people regard blogs, like books, as a one-way conversation. One of the nicest things about a novel, after all, is that the writer can do all the talking, leaving the reader the pleasure of sitting back and taking it all in.
Michael and I traveled for a month-about half in Bangladesh, half in India. In returning, we were 26-hours in transit-kept well fed by the efficient crew on Singapore Airlines. It took about a week to catch up on sleep and re-synchronize to Pacific Standard Time, a 10.
Sidebar: Blogging Without Blogger
Travelblogs can be simple like mine, or far more elaborate. When Louisa A. Simpson and her husband David Fetig took an extended trip to France, she started chronicling her trip using Blogger. But she wasn't happy with the slow picture uploads, and so she switched to her own site, using Macromedia Dreamweaver for the HTML editing. The result--www.
Simpson has not only put more care into her layout, but also tried her hand at multimedia, posting a few WMVs shot with a tiny Sony Cybershot camera. Sacrificing resolution for better upload speed, she has compressed these using Microsoft MovieMaker. Images include some dancing puppets in Barcelona and the chiming of church bells in Honfleur.
The trade-off for maintaining a more polished site is the overhead. As opposed to my nearly daily logs, Simpson updates her site at a more leisurely pace-once a month-reflecting her more leisurely stay in a far more leisurely country. On the other hand, she was as aware, as I was, of the public nature of a travelblog. "There's a certain amount of self-editing," she said. "If we visit someone, I may not put down everything I think." Some blogs are written as personal journals. But there is nothing very personal about a journal sitting on the World Wide Web.
Sidebar: More Excerpts from Bart's Bengal Travelblog: bengaltravels.
December 6th Tangail, Bangladesh:
I want to linger over the landscapes that pass by the window. The fields of rice, the glint of a rose sari in the afternoon sun, a stray goat on the levy road, two girls of statuesque grace talking by the pathway. This vastly crowded country still has vast empty fields and masses of water.
But as Michael keeps pointing out, this is a working landscape, a place where everything is hauled, hefted, pushed and pulled: 100 percent purebred manual labor, from the rice kernels tossed back into the muddy flat to the guy hauling massive cut tree bamboo by pedal power. To the clack of muscle-powered looms producing museum quality silken cloth for saris, to the hand spinning of a thread rolling machine and treadle of a sewing machine and the sweeping of rice to dry on concrete blocks. Even where you don't see the labor, you see its evidence everywhere, like the hand sculpting of the compact mud that forms the base of every corrugated structure.
At dinner, the auditor sitting next to me asks if I'm concerned about the bombings.
"No, I'm concerned about the traffic, the Bangladeshi traffic. It is insane." I'm serious. I'm not sure if it's equal to India's or above it, but I suspect the latter. Driving in Bangladesh is a succession of near misses. Bangladeshis drive as if the laws of physics have been suspended. To drive in Bangladesh is to play chicken with large vehicles of unknown breaking power that, under ideal circumstances would take many feet to stop-f, and this is dubious, the driver were actually inclined to stop. I have not seen such a driver on the roads here. Drivers are inclined to do two things: accelerate and honk.
Twice I've seen a bus nearly sideswipe us to get ahead on a one-lane bridge, only to pull off for passengers at the far end.... We have not, praise Allah, actually seen an accident. But every bus has large dents, scrapes and bruises. Gotten how? They should adapt the fighter pilot convention of posting icons of the planes shot down: little bicycles, bicycle cabs, and microbuses like ours they have crushed.
So who are the poorest of the poor? Look at many a crowded intersection in Dhaka, where beggars tap on your car window or, if it is open, reach through, palm raised, gesturing in a scooping motion at their mouths: international sign language for hunger. The poorest of the poor staring at the wealthiest of the wealthy: us. It's hard to imagine a starker contrast of circumstances.
But even here, there are seeming differences. The old man still seems healthier than the bare-chested boy, ribs sticking out, with his spindly arms gesturing to his stomach. And then there was a woman, back turned to me, in the dust off the road, lying just upright enough to reveal in the side glare of the headlights that she was alive.
Chittagong is thick with traffic, but as our microbus turns from boulevard to side street to smaller street to passageway, an unexpected quiet sets in, and you realize you are in something that resembles a village. The structures are closer; the pathways are littered in a way that a rural village is not. The sewage is more obvious, but coconut palms and what look like acacias tower above the roofs. There's a pond where people harvest fish. There are even, to my surprise, rice fields. The city roar recedes. The most prominent sound is that of young kids playing.
In Kolkata, crows are their own overlaying civilization, as tough, inquisitive, inventive and funny as their human neighbors. They are two-tone-jet-black with a wide, dark gray nape-large enough to land on the corrugated tin roofs with a thwack. From there, they hang out and gossip. They mob the occasional low-flying eagle. They are thick enough in the rice fields to appear as a dust devil. They seem omnivorous; I spotted one eating paper-a flying goat. Others were pecking at the seat of a bicycle. I saw one swinging trapeze-style from a drooping telephone wire.
If you want to learn about another culture, not just by observing, but in constant conversation, the entire subcontinent seems at the ready. Doors really do fling open, and people will generously share their lives, ask about yours, and serve you tea. If there is a better place to partake in this singular pleasure of good travel, especially within the confines of English, we have not seen it.
This is a place fueled by a pugnacious curiosity. It reaches out to you as a visitor, just as it is constantly reaching out to itself. The verbal tap on the shoulder always beckoning. McCartney's song could be an anthem. "Hello, Hello. I don't know why you say goodbye, I say hello."
Best wishes and goodbye from Bengal,
Bart & Michael