12 February 2008

O, the things that happen to me!

Good things, people! This post is about why I travel.

According to my guidebook, it should take around two hours by bus to reach Paharpur. Five hours later, I arrived and sat down to have lunch and tea with a guy from the bus who sort of led me there (no English). When the bill came, I guess I was nominated to pay. Since I don't know how to say, "Pay for your own lunch, f**ker" in Bangla, I shrugged and handed over the $1.80 or whatever it was.

Paharpur is Bangladesh's most important archaeological site. I suppose that's like saying Rutgers is New Brunswick's most important university, but the ruins at Paharpur once comprised the largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas (certainly the largest I've ever seen anywhere, including the Himalayas). It's not Angkor Wat, but the central structure certainly stands out in an otherwise flat country of endless rice paddies; and the decorative, terracota plaques that circumscribe it accent the remains nicely.

Now for the interesting part. When I had ambled my way around to the front of the central temple, where a staircase leads to the upper terraces, I encountered a Bangladeshi archaeological team roping off said staircase, which I was forbidden to climb. The guy who forbad me--Mahabub--seemed to be in charge, and I casually mentioned to him that I had done archaeological work in both Greece and Israel. This piqued his interest, and he invited me to sit down for a chat. I told him about myself and my experiences, and that, combined, no doubt, with the undeniable Syrek charm, led to him asking me to join the dig. He offered me a room at the site's guest house (meals included) and said I could stay as long as I like. Although I had planned to leave for Dhaka that afternoon (undoubtedly an interminable journey), how could I refuse such an offer? And refuse I did not.

Among the other people working there, he introduced me to Sultana, an official from the Department of Archaeology, who had her 10-year old son, Dibya, with her. I asked if Dibya was attending school. No, unfortunately. So I offered to give him free English lessons in the evening (thus keeping both of us preoccupied and out of trouble). Dibya readily agreed, and I have been impressed with his attitude--he is keen to learn, much more so than were, for the most part, my Japanese high school students (gomenasai, friends from Nippon).

My first day on the site was also the first day of the dig, so not much digging actually went on. Also, since labor here only costs $1.30/day, there isn't any labor per se for me to do. So I still need to work out how I can participate effectively, lest I grow bored or, even worse, simply get in the way. I did manage to get a look at a recently published UNESCO pamphlet (Paharpur is a World Heritage Site) that laments the destruction wrought by recent restoration work on the main temple and the neglect of the site as a whole (e.g., lack of proper drainage, destruction of protective concrete "membranes", no toilets). It recommends an action plan that would cost ("only") about $5 million to implement. You can imagine the scale of their ambitions in such a low-cost country. Even Mahabub--he revealed to me--only earns $100 a month, and he's put in decades of service. I mean, seriously, can you imagine that? $100 a month to live on? You hear such figures and think of the most abject destitution (the whole $2 a day thing), but Mahabub is a middle-class, educated professional earning that (same salary as the cafe girl from Beijing, as I recall). And along come I, my unkempt pockets casually stuffed with his entire annual salary in loose change. How else can one come to feel like utter, undeserving crap? And the next day, yesterday, when he invited me to visit his home in Rajshahi, he still paid for my train ticket.

But let me forestall any rambling. I wasn't actually too keen to visit Rajshahi, the regional capital, because it meant more traveling in a short time, and I was quite content to enjoy bucolic solace at Paharpur. But Mahabub had told his friend, a history professor, about me, and his friend told his three sons, who told their counsins... well, I had to go. OK, I thought, have a good attitude--they are, indeed, wonderful people, they're willing to feed me, and this *is* what I wanted, right? So here I am, in an internet "cafe" in Rajshahi, after spending a night at the lovely house of the history professor and family (I taught the sons Eucher), writing a post so you don't wonder what happened to me (no internet in Paharpur, just plenty of mosquitos). One of the three sons--the middle child--has graciously acted as my tour guide today. We went for a nice walk along the Padma River (known in India as the Ganges--you may have heard of it), visited the small Raj-era museum, and strolled around the campus of Rajshahi University (#2 in Bangladesh, I hear), where I couldn't find an English professor to converse with.

Tonight, I'll be staying at Mahabub's house, and we're catching an early train back to Paharpur tomorrow morning. I may leave the following day for Dhaka. I might could stay longer, but without any actual work to do, with the traveler's drive to continue lest I lose inertia, and with no great love for eating the same food every meal, every day, with no other options available (and however good it is), I think it's the best choice. Sultana has offered to let me stay with her husband in Dhaka, and her nephew (cool guy, English speaking, not religious) will accompany me there. On Friday, he's taking an entrance exam for Dhaka University. Following, I may have convinced him to walk the length of Cox's Bazaar with me--it's the world's longest beach and currently the number one contender among candidates for the new seven wonders of the natural world (Sundarbans number two!). I don't particularly enjoy laying on beaches, but walking on them is fine. And this one, except for one town, is commercially undeveloped. I think the walk will take three or four days. After that, I may go scuba diving on St. Martin's Island, details forthcoming on that remotest of Bangladeshi locations.

Quite an unexpected pleasure, this Bangladesh!


Devo said...

Wow, Steve. I feel like you're turning into a modern-day Herodotus.

Jhenn said...

Oh that charm!
That's really awesome Steve. Like, totally awesome. ummm, yes