I rediscovered my journal for September 2017 when I first came to Bangladesh:
The flight across the Bay of Bengal from Dhaka to Cox’s Bazar took less than an hour. The view from the windows of the plane was spectacular – cotton-wool cloud formations over the Brahmaputra delta.
There was hardly time to have the in-flight snack. We were served mango juice, a traditional dessert and a minty sweet. But most intriguing was the strange aluminium-wrapped cylinder containing mystery meat wrapped in a roti. I ate it because I didn’t know what I would be eating for the next few months. The Bangladeshi passenger in the seat next to me must have thought I looked desperate, so he offered his to me.
My first impression of Cox’s Bazar was the blast of humid air, fragranced with the rotting smell of dried fish, which entered the aircraft cabin when the door opened. I didn’t find it too hot, but I was used to Delhi heat. Most of the other aid workers on board started to perspire, with their logo tee shirts sticking to their backs under their overstuffed rucksacks.
The baggage collection was very simple. Workers unloaded the luggage from trailers, forming a random pile outside the terminal building. It was mayhem as people clambered over suitcases searching for their bag, clearly identified by a swatch of scarlet ribbon tied around the handle. I made a mental note to switch my swatch from red to pink.
The MSF driver was waiting just outside the airport. We climbed on board with our bags and drove through Cox’s Bazar to the team house in Ukhiya.
I was impressed by a roundabout on Kolatoli Road decorated with four life-sized sharks. I didn’t dare take a photograph because there were posters of politicians arranged around the base. In the west, most politicians would probably avoid being associated with sharks. Maybe in Bangladesh, the shark is seen as a purposeful creature that never stops and gets things done.
Bangladesh is a Muslim state, so I was surprised to see adverts for a drink which looked like foaming glasses of beer. I was mistaken, the clue was in the name, “Oscar Malt Beverage”. The YouTube video is an amusing commercial.
Cox’s is an interesting town. It was named after a British seaman, Captain Hiram Cox, who tried to reason with Burmese soldiers crossing the border to search for wrongdoers in Chittagong (then part of East Bengal). He died in 1799 and would not have been remembered if his name had not been given to the market area at the mouth of the Moheshkhali estuary.
The roads in Cox’s are packed with auto rickshaws, five rows of vehicles in a three carriageway road. Some of the rickshaws have metal cages around the passengers, perhaps for security reasons. In the centre of town, the tarmac needs major repairs. Driving south, the congestion eased but the quality of the driving didn’t improve. There were traffic lights operating on each side of a Bailey Bridge over a river, but this didn’t deter rickshaw drivers from squeezing past in the opposite direction with just centimetres to spare.
Along the beachfront, new hotels are sprouting up, but since the financial crisis in 2008, the progress of the development has slowed. It looks a bit like Blackpool for Bangladeshis.
We reached Ukhiya after 40 minutes. The MSF van bounced over the edge of the tarmac and continued down a rough road by the central mosque. Before we reached the market, we turned left, then right onto a brick causeway across emerald green paddy. And a rubbish tip. A five-floor apartment block contained MSF’s office, store and expat accommodation. Bangladeshi families lived on the first and second floors. Up on the roof, there was a breeze. I could hear thunder in the rolling hills of Myanmar to the east.
A month ago, seven expats lived in the building. Now (September 2017) there are over forty, but no one seems quite sure, as people are coming and going. Mattresses are spread out everywhere, occupying any spare space. One room has three mattresses jammed together. I am offered a mattress in a corridor, but I hold out for a small room in the laundry, shared with Antonio. He is an Italian photographer who specialises in documenting the human aspect of earthquakes and disasters. He has the bed and the mosquito net; I have the floor. Unfortunately, I don’t have a key for the room, so I am locked in by the Project Co-ordinator, who sleeps behind a washing line hung with drying linen.
The toilets are basic but clean, Asian-style squatters. The showers are cold, but that’s a blessing. People are encouraged to keep their quarters clean by storing their muddy boots outside on the stairs. There is hardly any space left on the stairs to climb them.
During my first night, there was an amazing electrical storm, but with little rain. Thunder rumbled through the night. In the morning I woke up with something stuck onto the whiskery stubble around my mouth. It felt like grains of rice. I wondered if they had been present since last night’s meal. I brushed one into my mouth and it didn’t taste of rice. It didn’t taste nice at all. On closer inspection, it looked like tiny mouse turds. Or they could have been gecko shit. When I told Dr Konstantin, he said it was probably geckos playing a game. “They are trying to score a bullseye by shitting from the ceiling into your open mouth.”