Personal observations from a memorable 7 months spent in Bangladesh, between August 1999 and April 2000. One of the poorest countries on the planet, but where the human spirit seems to be at its strongest.
I was busy working on a project in the Bay of Bengal and was based in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Part of my daily duties included ferrying personnel by small boat between the various elements of our Seismic crew, working offshore, either on a secondary base on Sandwip (Pron. Shawn-dipp) Island or a barge installation, assuming we could remember where we had last parked it.
Our boat was based on the Kharnaphuli River, and to get there from the Staff house in the Khulshi Hills we had to drive right past the main gates of the Bangladesh Naval Academy, a very smart establishment a little bit like the famous UK Dartmouth Naval academy, but a lot more like something from “It aint ‘arf hot mum”.
During this daily commute by car, I had noticed that close to the main gate of the college a solitary old man had pitched a tent on the wide grass verge. Alongside this tent was a mountain of paint tins, mostly second hand, of all sorts, shapes and sizes, and my curiosity was aroused.
As the days went by my morning and evening commute saw a large bamboo scaffolding appear, looking pretty precarious but gradually taking shape as the frame to a giant billboard.
The Billboard was 4 -5 metres high and about 12 metres long, standing on legs so that the bottom of the frame was a couple of metres from the ground. The entire structure was held together with rope lashings and what looked like baling twine.
Traffic was usually heavy at this point and I often nodded or waved to the old man as we crawled past, and he always responded with a cheery and rather toothless smile.Once the frame of the billboard was complete the boarding itself was built up from dozens of bits of board, all shapes and sizes that he’d scavenged. They filled the rectangle like a deranged jigsaw puzzle.
With all the holes filled in, the surface was treated to a few miles of Gaffer-tape to cover all the cracks and imperfections, and then a few coats of white paint mixed with glue. Every day saw progress, but it took 5/6 weeks to complete. But suddenly one day there was a blindingly white Billboard, with a neat frame, and a totally professional finish…. just so long as you didn’t go round to the back and see how it was all held together.
“Job done!” I thought, “now we will see someone rock up with a few rolls of poster and a big pot of glue, wonder what ad it will be?”
Never make assumptions, and certainly not in places like Chittagong, what you see is not always what you get.
The old man was only occasionally seen for the following week or so, pushing a hand cart loaded with more paint, and the pile of mostly part-used pots alongside his tent grew to an impressive size. And then, one day he appeared back on the scaffold again, armed with a pocketful of pencils, and busy at work, sketching outlines.
At first it was hard to see what it was he was drawing from the distance we usually passed, so one morning, while stuck in heavy traffic, I jumped out of the car for a closer look. I was gobsmacked.
It was the Julie Andrews scene from the Sound of Music, “The Hills are alive” bit, with J.A. and the kids skipping up the hillside holding hands and the most awesome mountain scenery backdrop behind. The old man saw me and was clearly very proud of his work but laughing his head off at the dopy Englishman standing gawping with an astonished look on his face.
The old man fired off a string of what sounded like questions to me and all I could do was shrug and grin at him, making “Bugger me that’s good” type noises and gestures. Luckily my driver heard this and saw me struggling stepped in to translate for us. We had a great chat, agreed to meet up often, and he asked me to stop and tell him what I thought from time to time. All I really found out was that he was a trained artist, and this was a commission for him that was going to pay him handsomely
So I had met the artist, and even shook hands with him, and he had let me in on the secret, and day by day, over a total period of 3 months, all I had to do was watch, as a glorious technicolour scene from the Sound of music took place before my very eyes. It was superb, magnificent, and flawless too. It WAS Julie Andrews and the Von Trapp kids, life sized and recognisable, in the mountains and singing that bloody awful song (It’s even got back in my head just now writing this FFS).
In the bottom right hand corner, perfectly executed, was the Fuji Film logo and a statement in Bengali that if YOU “wanted the hills to come alive in living colour you had better buy their film stock”.
Abruptly one day, the tent, along with the old man disappeared. He had cleared up and cleared off. I had an empty feeling, a part of my daily life had come to a sudden end, and I was so deeply caught up in it all, that I never even saw “The End” arriving.
Our work was now taking on a whole new twist, with operations in the Bay of Bengal being the most challenging I have ever worked in, and I confess, the old man went out of my mind temporarily.
To make things interesting, we had heard that a Typhoon was in the Bay, and tracking aimlessly about with no particular direction.
The JTWC (Joint Typhoon Warning Centre) in Canberra, Australia were providing daily updates on its strength and position, and after nearly a week of uncertainty we got all complacent, and went to the Monday evening “Pub Night” to get lubricated, celebrating the demise of Typhoon “Rupert”.
And lo, did it not come to pass that the following morning, (over a light breakfast of Paracetamol and copious puffs of Oxygen from the mechanic’s workshop), we did come to receive the news that “Rupert” had had a change of heart, and the bastard was strengthening, and now tracking in a dead straight line for Chittagong. Deep Joy.
We were organised for once, and had put a traffic light zone alert system in place, so by the time the storm had entered our Green Zone, we were getting things ready to evacuate.
When it reached the Yellow Zone we put the evacuation plan into practice and got the boats out of the Bay and deep inland, way up-river, sending our 1000 strong workforce home, and battening down everything we could.
Imagine my surprise when at this critical stage I got called into the office by the Crew Chief, to be told that as I had already completed twice as many days as my shift rotation permitted, I could now go home for a “couple of weeks”.
In actual fact our rotations meant that I had earned 6 weeks at home at least, so the thought of going home for a “Couple of weeks” was somewhat underwhelming.
Anyway, I got the hell out of Dodge. Typhoons are not to be taken lightly, especially when you are owed 6 weeks leave and there is still time to make the airport.***
I confess that I did feel slightly bad about leaving my mates behind to deal with Big Bad “Rupert”, my guilt lasted all of a Nanosecond.
Then I got on the plane and went home to see the wife and lovely new Daughter, who, at a year old had just managed to say “Dads working in Banladess”, in Dutch.
All hell did break loose in Chittagong, but not nearly as much as it did 100m west of Chittagong where the storm first touched land, with over 2000 dead and whole villages washed away. Typhoons and storm surges are a very big thing in Bangladesh. One that hit them in 1991 killed several hundred thousand people.
Once over, the storm damage was repaired and the crew reformed. I had had about 10 days leave out of the promised 42 days but we got going again. On my first trip back to the harbour I was sickened by the site of the famous (in my head at least) Billboard, which had been reduced to a few sticks poking out of the grass.
Weeks and weeks of work blown to bits, scattered to the 4 winds.
The following morning however, the tent was back, with a huge pile of debris arranged neatly alongside of it. I didn’t see the old man for more than a week, but when I did, he was already up on the beginning of his makeshift scaffolding, piecing together the bits he had gathered up from all over the neighbourhood. We had found a few biggish bits of the billboard in the river one day and gave them to a friendly lorry driver to dump by the old man’s tent.
A couple of days later the old man rushed up to our car as we passed in the morning, and banged on the window with a Pineapple, it was his gift to us for finding his stuff.
3 weeks later, the whole thing was reassembled, good as new, and a week after that I left Bangladesh for the last time.
I took something with me though. An undying respect for the power of little men, with no money, and little education, yet seeming to have all the strength of a Bengal Tiger
There is a bit of a sub story here.
To avoid the Typhoon, I had flown from Chittagong to Dhaka, for my international flight to Paris, but when I checked in they had “mysteriously” managed to sell my seat. Several times I believe.
Of course it didn’t take long to figure out why, with a Typhoon coming, those folk that could afford it were also getting out of the country PDQ, and had been waving blocks of currency about that would choke a donkey.
Very tired and after nearly 3 months away working, I aimed myself at the highest ranking Air France official I could find and ripped into him. I was not about to take Non! for an answer. I had a ticket and a seat number and I was putting my backside on that seat come what may.
I wore him down, and he buggered off to have a conversation.
He returned half an hour later and took me to one side. In one hand he had an envelope, and in the other he had my laptop bag with me still attached, heading off across the lounge. We arrived at the Lufthansa desk, words were spoken, my passport was requested and all was in order.
If I would care to accept the envelope, containing $1250, the nice people at Lufthansa would take me to Frankfurt, 1st Class, on a flight leaving Dhaka only 1 hour later than my original Paris flight.
I don’t know about you but I have never earned $1250 in a single hour before (Or since), especially as it was spent having a Champagne Breakfast in the Lufthansa VIP suite.