“The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.” Oliver Sacks. “To take a photograph is to align the head, the eye and the heart,” Henri Cartier-Bresson
Author:Dr Alfred Prunesquallor
Maverick doctor with 40 years experience, I reduced my NHS commitment in 2013. I am now enjoying being free lance, working where I am needed overseas. Now I am working in the UK helping with the current coronavirus pandemic.
“There was a roaring in the wind all night. The rain came heavily and fell in floods.” William Wordsworth, Resolution and Independence
A tremendous electrical storm woke me from sleep with a terrifying show of lightning, accompanied by driving rain. It lasted more than an hour. When I got out of bed the next morning, I stepped into a puddle. At first I thought that window frames were not water-tight, but then I realised the toilet had leaked into the bedroom. Backflush.
The minivan arrived at 7:15 to take us to work. I began to regret having eaten a greasy omelette for breakfast. We made good progress driving north along Marine Drive, despite dozens of goats on the road. To our left, semilunar fishing boats were beached, ready to be launched at high tide. To the right were prawn hatcheries.
We hit traffic driving south on the main road, National Highway 1. All traffic was at a standstill. But patience is not a virtue held by Bangladeshi autorickshaw drivers and after a couple of minutes, they came buzzing past, horns blaring, belting down the wrong side of the road. Someone asked our driver what was the cause of the holdup. He slowly and deliberately said, “It…is…a…traffic…jam.”
We thought that there may have been an accident and I considered getting out of the van to see if my services were needed, as a medical Good Samaritan. My colleagues advised me against it. Discretion prevailed, but imagine the newspaper headlines, “Expat medical team remains cosseted in their air-conditioned vehicle while Bangladeshis perish in road crash.”
In front of us, a truckload of Bangladesh Signals soldiers in rather fetching camouflage uniforms climbed down onto the tarmac. Their officer looked efficient. He had a row of pens and pencils tucked into a pocket on the sleeve of his uniform. He strolled down the road past the stationary vehicles, looking into the ditch. I wondered out loud if he was considering whether it could be possible for a truck to bypass the obstruction by going off-road. “No, he’s just looking for a place to pee,” said one of the Water & Sanitation engineers in the minivan.
When we started moving forward, the drivers behind us became irritable and parped their horns if we didn’t immediately drive closer to the vehicle in front. We overtook the source of the blockage, a massive earthmoving machine mounted on a low-loader. At last other agencies were responding by supporting infrastructure. I guessed that the machine would be levelling ground for the new Red Cross/Red Crescent hospital by the side of the road at the Rubber Garden. It was far too big to tackle the muddy tracks inside the camp itself.
The hospital is muddy and miserable when it is raining. Rain pelting on a corrugated iron roof makes such a racket that taking a history is almost impossible. The consulting rooms and wards have concrete floors, but the tents have flooring made from plastic sheeting. People find it difficult to get to the hospital because the paths in the camp have turned to muddy streams. Old people who venture out run the risk of sliding and slipping in the mud, fracturing their wrists and hips. More work for us.
The local Bangladeshi community doesn’t see many white expatriates, in the flesh, out of doors, on the street. They see us flash past in minibuses and four-wheel drive SUVs, plastered with the logos of aid organisations, with little steel pennants on the front wing for a flag.
Occasionally they catch a glimpse of MSF expats walking from our team house to the office or buying ice cream from a local shop. Otherwise, they only see expats when they are ill and need to visit our clinics in the camp.
MSF has a strict security policy, restricting where and when we can roam. I often take a morning constitutional around the paddy fields and market area, as this has been designated a safe area.
I like interacting with the locals. Despite speaking only a handful of Bangladeshi (or “Chittagongi” in this area) words, I can get by with pidgin English and lots of sign language. I hadn’t had a proper haircut since July (done by a Pakistani barber in Green Lane Road, Leicester), so when I finished clinic early last week, I went into Ukhiya to look for a barbershop. Unlike Delhi, there aren’t any barbers plying their trade on the pavement. Well, Ukhiya doesn’t actually have any roadside pavement yet. I was given some general directions by a friend so I managed to find the shop easily.
I am quite used to being the object of people’s curiosity. They don’t glance surreptitiously at me; it is a full-on, open-mouthed stare. I engage with the starers, greeting them and they are obliged to interact: “Salaam Alaykum.” “Alaykum Salaam.”
When I walked into the hairdressers, all the clipping stopped for a moment as the barbers noticed a foreigner in their midst. Even the customers were eyeing up my reflection in the mirrors. But the boss ushered me into a seat and within a few seconds, everything went on as before.
There was an old television fixed up high in the corner of the room showing a Banglawood movie. After some sharp words from the boss, a minion came over, picked up the remote and started stabbing at it. He had been told to look for a foreign station. The only one was a sports channel, showing grainy video of a football match. How about that for hospitality?
One of the barbers came over and established I wanted a haircut. He tied a tissue around my neck and draped me with a plastic cape. Now the difficult bit. What kind of cut do I want? Most Bangladeshis have a short back and sides, some with quite elaborate styling on top. My barber, Mr Sharma, had a good style. I pointed at his hair, then at my hair and smiled. No joy.
How much did I want off? I said, “Chota,” which means “a little bit”. “Speak Hindi?” he asked and rattled off a few phrases which I didn’t understand. Then I played my trump card. I knew the Chittagongi/Rohingya word “alpo”, which also means small. “Trim, small, alpo, understand?”
He nodded and set to work with comb and scissors on one side of my head. After five minutes, I came to the conclusion that alpo meant leave a little, rather than cut off a little. We had crossed the Rubicon now, so I let him continue.
Every now and then, the television commentator got excited and instinctively I turned my head towards the TV screen to see who had scored. The barber grabbed my head and repositioned it as he wanted. I suppose the TV is for the benefit of those waiting, rather than those being scalped.
Mr Sharma kept clipping. I now knew his first name, Liton (or maybe Lytton). He could see I was sweating in the sultry heat, so he turned a fan onto me. This made my hair fly up so he sprayed it with water to keep it in place.
I was reassured when he used a new razor blade to shave the edges and clean up my neck down to the shoulder blades. He soothed the razor burn on my neck using a machine like a large shaving brush, which vibrated and showered me with talcum powder.
My rampant eyebrows were trimmed and he dealt with my nostrils and ears. I probably paid extra for the obligatory head, neck and shoulder massage – the full Monty. There was some discussion over the price. Locals pay about 50 taka, 75 if the salon is air-conditioned, and 100 -150 taka in the big city, Cox’s Bazar. I gave Liton 100 and he was happy (about 90p).
The haircut took about 45 minutes, and it was getting dark as I left the shop. Outside, a group of children sitting on a handcart started giggling as I walked past. They had been watching the performance. I didn’t have time to chat, so I walked briskly back to the house, wondering how hilarious my new haircut was. It looked fine in the salon…
Yesterday, I was waiting at the roadside for an ambulance coming from the clinic with a seriously ill patient. It was 7:30am and I attracted a crowd before a man shoo-ed people away. We chatted. He understood why I was there and was able to explain to all the curious bystanders. They were satisfied. He had 100kg of green chillies in four burlap sacks. In the mouth of each sack was stuffed some fresh grass. A goat joined us and kept nibbling on the grass. I wanted to see what would happen if it ate a chilli, but the man waved it away. A little boy dressed in his Friday-best white outfit came over to practise his English. A grizzled old rickshaw driver was also curious. He cycled past a few times, then came over to make my acquaintance. I tried asking him how old he was. He understood my age but didn’t know his own. The frame of his cycle rickshaw said “A Long Life”.
A succession of barrel wallahs passed me. The low sunlight made photography difficult and I should have used video to capture their bouncing gait, in synch with the oscillations of the bamboo pole across their shoulders. The trick is for them to keep moving.
The ambulance arrived and I accompanied the patient to Cox’s Bazar.
PS This piece was written a month ago when I was still working in Bangladesh.
This is my last blog post displaying doors from Bangladesh. These are all from the village of Ukhiya, in Cox’s Bazar District, just to the north of the largest refugee camp in the world at Kutupalong-Balukhali. Outside the team house, relaxed security allowed us to walk through the rice fields and into the market area. Here is a wonderful modern house painted in pastel colours by the paddy. Sadly, the door is just a concertina metal fence.
Another colourful house in the village, again painted in pastels. Note the door is set high, with a barrier to prevent flood water from entering the compound.
I walked past this door which has a large gap below the gate. Above, there are some circular, decorative spoke-like patterns.
Some craftsmen make wooden doors, too. When I arrived at this shop, the small boy was sanding down the intricate design. His father told him to stop. I thought that the father might be conscious of Western disapproval of child labour. The boy seemed to be enjoying it, as judged by his big smile. Another man came over to do some sanding instead.
Not all businesses are doing well. The weeds on the concrete overhang look to be flourishing more than the shop.
Some doors from Bangladesh. The first picture comes from Kutupalong Refugee Camp. About 650,000 Muslim Rohingya fled from NW Myanmar to escape persecution over the past few months. This camp is currently the biggest in the world. Conditions are squalid. The Rohingya construct their shelters with plastic sheeting and bamboo. This is where I have been working for the past two months.
Outside the camp, in Ukhiya, the doors are made from metal for security.
This is a door shop in the bazar. The design is reminiscent of Mughal Art in the 17th Century in India.
A testament to corrugated tin sheeting.
This is intriguing. What does the sign say? Does anyone read Chittagongi? Or it might be Bangla?
I’m in Dublin doing an evening presentation and some interviews on television and radio for MSF, Doctors Without Borders. The purpose is to keep the appalling plight of the Rohingya in the public mind.
I arrived in Dublin late on Monday night, caught the airport coach to the centre and checked into my hotel.
The restaurant had closed so the receptionist directed me to a late night Tesco. Or should that be “O’Tesc”? I picked up some snack food and went to the young woman on the till.
“I apologise, but I only have a €50 note.”
“I hate dat,” she said.
“I can pay by card if you like”
“No problem. We’ve got plenty of change. It was just breaking into a fifty. Once you’ve done it, you never get it back. It’s gone for good”
When I told this story to one the MSF staff, he accused me of “paddy wacking”, poking fun at the Irish. But I enjoy pointing out humorous aspects of life in my blogs.
Like the little boy at Dublin Airport this morning, lying down on the travelator. Hilarious.
Three doors from the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington, London. The photos were taken on a cell phone. I was so excited about picking up my visa to go to Bangladesh that they are a bit blurred from my shaking. Forgive me. But they are worth a look, no?
Thirteenth century doors from France. Over the centuries, wood tends to rot and iron corrodes. The iron is decorative and protective. The marks from the keyhole and handle show that the door was used upside down in the past.
This door is from the early 16th Century. The halfmoon “lunette” panel above the door shows an illustration from the labours of Hercules. The door is from Orleans, France.
This is door from Ipswich in England. It dates back to the early 16th Century. The thick oak planks have stood the test of time well.
“How long does it take to get to the airport, driver?”
“Two hours if traffic jam. Light traffic is less, about one hour,” he said.
Leaving the team house at 6:50am, we arrived at 7:15am. And he wasn’t speeding.
The security check involved loading my suitcase and carry-on bag onto the rollers to go through the Xray scanner. As they disappeared behind the rubber flaps, I noticed I was still carrying my wallet. This contained my passport, boarding card, foreign money, credit cards, house key, driving licence and other essentials. I glanced over to the security guard and asked what to do with my wallet. I motioned throwing the wallet onto the conveyor belt and he nodded. So I did.
Then I realised I still had my mp3 player, my mobile phone, a camera on my belt and my watch. I pointed at this, but another guard just waved me through the metal detector. It beeped frantically and the guard gave me a cursory rub down before waving me through. My suitcase and carry-on bag had already slid down the rollers after being scanned, but there was a lady’s handbag there. I picked it up and shouted to a woman who had just left. She shook her head but another lady came running over to take it from me.
I glanced over to the Xray scanner as my wallet appeared through the rubber strips. It looked thin enough to slip down into the gap between the rollers, so I lunged at it. At that precise moment, the security guard decided to have another close look at a piece of luggage in the scanner. He put the conveyor belt into reverse and my wallet went back into the machine before I could grab it.
The security guards saw this and tried hard to stop themselves from laughing. The wallet returned to view and I picked it up. The guards called me over and thanked me for helping the lady with her forgotten handbag. I suppose technically I should have called them. Perhaps they thought it unseemly to speak to an unknown woman. I doubt they would have blown it up in a controlled explosion.
My colleague managed to pass through the emigration formalities without too much difficulty, in spite of having overstayed his visa. He offered to pay a fine, but the officer just waved him through.
Bangladeshis have a sweet tooth, as well as a sweet disposition; most of the shops in the departure lounge were selling pastries and cakes.
There were some shops where you could buy liquor. Judging by the dust, many of the bottles on display had been on the shelves for years. The foil cap and seal on a $80 bottle of cognac was so distressed that it looked like it might have been tampered with. A bottle of sparkling wine was dirty, with the bare cork showing; it had probably lost its fizz. Unsurprisingly, not many people were buying booze at 8am.
An enthusiastic leather goods salesman tried to sell me a belt. Last year, I lost a lot of weight in Delhi so I had an extra hole punched into my belt. The excess tongue of the belt flaps out from my side. The belt he tried to sell me was called CROSS. The sales assistant got excited when I got out my wallet, but instead of showing him dollars, I showed him my name (“Ki Naam”) on the boarding card. He said, “Bangladesh Biman?”
“No, my name is CROSS. Like the brand of the belt. How much is it? I quite fancy having a personalised belt buckle,” I said.
“Only £25, sir.”
I decided I didn’t fancy having a personalised belt that much. I opened my laptop and began writing this blog. Time 8:29am.
Bangladesh Biman Flight BG 088 was scheduled to leave at 10:20am. At 9:45am, the departure notice board directed us to gate 9, but there was no one there when I arrived. The staff turned up at 10am and we all filed through into the holding pen by the gate. A tall American man guided me to the seats at the far end, away from the raucous Bangladeshi soap opera on the TV. At 10:20am, he said that the last time he had taken this flight, it had been cancelled without warning at the last minute. “So for that reason, I took out flight insurance this time,” he said. When I looked worried, he reassured me by saying that the authorities would not have taken our luggage if the flight was likely to be cancelled. “Bangladesh,” he sighed.
At 10:40am I went to the security desk to ask for information about the flight. “It is on time,” said a man in a high visibility vest. “It has arrived. It is on the apron.” He fluttered his hands in the general direction of the planes outside. There were no planes displaying Bangladesh Biman livery. I returned to my seat. The textile machine manufacturer from South Carolina said that being twenty minutes late was actually considered to be on time in Bangladesh.
Ten minutes later, there was a flurry of activity and we were ushered down the stairs to board an ancient bus. The seats were fixed around the periphery, providing more room for travellers to be packed inside, standing. Some men had spread their buttocks over two seats and did not wish to make room for anyone who needed to sit down.
The driver had some trouble getting the bus to start. He kept turning the ignition key until the glow plugs warmed up and the diesel engine wheezed into life. But it didn’t sound healthy. The driver had to keep his foot on the accelerator to prevent the engine from stalling. He eased it into a gear (probably third, I’d guess) and slowly let out the clutch. The bus lurched forward, as the driver slipped the clutch and kept the revs up.
We drove in front of the terminal buildings, past the parked aeroplanes. We drove past a wide array of broken pallets, loaded with cardboard boxes wrapped in sheets of plastic. The wind had torn the sheeting ragged. I was not sure if this was the normal holding area for air freight, or whether it was where stuff had been lost and abandoned. The bus turned onto the tarmac apron and stopped outside our plane, about a kilometre away from Gate Nine.
On boarding, I noticed that the plane looked the worse for wear. I had requested a window seat so I could take pictures. Just as I was getting comfortable, a Bangladeshi man rudely told me to get out of his seat. He said he always has a window seat, “8C is window.” I explained that my seat, 8A, would normally be the window seat. He was furious when more well-mannered Bangladeshis in the surrounding seats told him he was wrong. Then he changed tack and claimed that he had a boarding pass for seat 8A. I showed him my stub, suggesting it might be double booked. He checked his boarding pass and harrumphed, flopping down in the aisle seat in a fit of pique.
After takeoff, the antimacassar piece of tissue paper on the headrest of my seat fell off. When I tried to replace it, the whole head rest came away in my hands. I managed to fit the bolt protruding from the back of the head rest into the hole in the seat, but it remained wobbly for the rest of the flight.
The flight attendants served us a curry with a bottle of Seven Up. The foldaway tray was so tilted that it threatened to spill lunch into my lap. The passenger in seat 8B was engrossed in watching a film he had uploaded to his iPad. He tried eating his meal with the tablet balanced against the seat in front. After Denzil Washington dispatched a villain in a startling manner, the passenger jumped, knocking the tablet off the tray table. I retrieved it for him (only fair, as I was also sneakily watching the film) and luckily the screen was intact. That would teach him to watch movies while eating.
As we crossed over into Thai airspace, the captain turned on the fasten seat belt sign and explained that he was expecting turbulence. He manoeuvred the plane between some impressive cumulo-nimbus cloud formations. We hit a low pressure air pocket and the plane abruptly dropped about a hundred feet. Several Bangladeshi ladies screamed in fear. Several began repeatedly chanting the name of God. We descended, flying out over the Gulf of Siam and turned to make our approach into Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. We landed smoothly, but no one clapped.
The longest beach in Asia stretches south from Cox’s Bazar to Teknaf, forming the eastern shore of the Bay of Bengal. I cross “Marine Drive” and walk through a gap in a brick wall to get to the beach. It looks grim. Dogs howling. Grey, angry clouds swollen with rain. Broken sun loungers stacked in piles, covered with ragged tarpaulins.
It rains a lot in this part of the world. Streams running to the sea wind their way through the muddy sand. There are nets attached to sticks, spanning the rivers. As these are tidal, I am not sure whether they catch saltwater fish swimming upstream or freshwater fish swimming downstream.
There are fishing boats, beached on the shore. They resemble shorter, fatter, curlier versions of Viking longboats, crescent shaped but without a mast. They carry lobster pots which have tall, flagged floats. The magical effect is spoiled by a dirty diesel engine, spluttering out clouds of black smoke that drifts over the estuary.
There is a local market on the beach, reached by a ramp of plastic sacks filled with sand. The stalls sell the usual plastic bric-a-brac, toys, bowls and mugs. There are streamers of brightly coloured packets of snacks hung from the roof and souvenirs on sale for Bangladeshi tourists. A cow rummages through the rubbish scattered behind the shops, beside a cart advertising Elite Paint.
To the south, there is the intriguing Bay Watch Hotel, run by the Bangladeshi Army. The wood of the sunloungers is rotting under the skeletal limbs of ruined parasols.
A few weeks later, the rainy season is over. The dawn sky casts a pink/orange light on the scene. A man is collecting plastic from the beach, to sell and recycle rather than to clean up. Two others are fishing in the sea using nets. Their catch is pathetic, half a dozen sprats. Both have cigarettes in their mouths as they use both hands to unravel the nets. Smoke drifts up into their eyes.
There are more fishermen using nets in the estuary. Two sailors beckon me down to their boats to have breakfast. The flames lick dangerously around the blackened pot on the deck stove.