2001.07.27Well, it's been a quiet week in Patia...
I am on my way back from Srimongal where I have spent the past week with all the other volunteers, supposedly learning something to make us better volunteers, but really spending a lot of time swimming in the pool, playing darts and ping pong, and generally abdicating all responsibility. There are only 18 of us now (out of the 33 that came), so it was good to see everyone and hear that they are still committed to the work they are doing. Most people have large obsticals to overcome and it is often very tiring when you don't see any results. Most people are finding small joys and victories in other things and that's probably what's keeing most of us here. It was a good break, and I did learn a few things and get some energy back that I've been loosing, but I'm ready to get back. Believe it or not, for all of my complaining and pessamism, I miss my site!
The cycling trip to Srimongal didn't work out - the country director wouldn't let me go. He was afraid I would get shot by the mobsters in Feni which I would have to go through to stay in the country. I could have bypassed Feni by taking a short cut through India, but I didn't even bring up that idea when I saw how he reacted to the trip in the first place.
Instead, Sharon (a volunteer in Chittagong) and I took a train up to Srimongal a few days early and rented some bikes. Srimongal is the tea capital of Bangladesh and it is absolutely beautiful. There's no question; every Bangladeshi would agree that it is one of the most beautiful places in Bangladesh. We also cycled through a forest preserve to get there which was also breath taking. It's a lot like jungle, with vines, tall trees, and dense undergrowth. There are still indigenous people that live on the hilltops and we think we saw some from the road but didn't go meet them.
Yes, I did mention hills. It's one of the few places in Bangladesh that has hills (the other is east of my site about 30 km or so). One speed bikes don't work very well on the hills, but it was so refreshing to have hills on both sides and not be able to see for miles that we put up with it. The tea estates are also on hills with tall trees shading the small bushes. According to the tea estate managers, they tea trees (kept short to look like bushes) need shade and drainage so that's why they are only on hills. They are so vast that often times we would stop and not see anyone in any direction for quite some time. This is almost impossible in most parts of Bangladesh because it is the world's most densly populated country.
Most of the people that work at the estates live their whole lives there and know of nothing else. Most are indigenous people or Hindus that come over from India. They are also accustomed to seeing foreigners and so they didn't stare at us too much when we were staring at them! It's quite a beautiful site - 20 women in colorful saris plucking tea leaves in a field of green. The beauty, of course, is only skin deep. Sadly, they get paid only 1 taka per kilogram of leaves (57 taka = $1 US). Inside the factory is equally amazing. It runs 24 hours a day and is very hot inside due in part to the large ovens that dry the leaves. They are also seived into 5 different sizes for different markets, with the left over dust being used as a binder for paint! Tea is in piles everywhere on the floors, and it's just scooped up and put into large wooden boxes. That's right - the tea you drink has been on the floor and walked through by a bunch of workers in bare feet. Well, so is the rice, so what's the big deal? Good thing we boil it...
The factory workers get a net pay of 27 taka per day. It's a net pay because they send their kids to the company school, use the company medical services, and I'm pretty sure there's even a company store. I guess they are taken care of, but in a way they are slaves to the company. What's worse: boycotting tea and putting them all out of a job, leaving them destitute but free; or continuing to consume tea and ensure that they have a job for the rest of their lives that they can never escape from? I don't know. Someone please let me know the answer to that dilemna.
Anyway, we stayed at the tea estate overnight in the manager's bungalow. They live a very posh lifestyle and don't associate with the manual labor. They claim it's a system left over from the British - living in luxury while the workers are paid so little are become an untouchable caste, but I don't think it's simply that. It was quite a juxtaposition to see such hard working, poorly paid people and stay at a house that's as big as my family's house in the States and just as well furnished.
We spent two days cycling and got really close to the Indian border. We were within 5 km of the border and could see some wonderfull hills in the distance. I can't wait to visit India, but I think I'll be going to Nepal first in October if everything works out.
The conference was held in true British style for it's a compound owned and operated by the British High Commission. Western food, swimming pools, air conditioning. I almost forgot I was in Bangladesh for those 4 days.