The Silent Island – Of Mangrove beaches and Motorbike Rides in South Bangladesh

Contributed by Reema Islam. About the Author: Reema is an environmentalist by profession working in the development sector in Dhaka, Bangladesh. With an active wanderlust Reema never misses an opportunity to travel to the remote regions of the country. Self consciously striving to be an eco friendly traveller while contributing her bit to protect the environment through her work, Reema’s real passion however lies in archeology. So from the elusive mangroves of the Sundarbans to the mysterious solitude of the Buddhist monastery ruins, Reema’s journeys take her to the greenest and the oldest regions of Bangladesh.

For some one who can sleep for up to 12 hours, I sprang out with amazing zeal at 6 am on the morning of 27th Dec 2010, and left by 7am en route to Noakhali. My destination was the island south east of Noakhali called Nijhum Dwip (silent island) and the mission was to document an end of the project evaluation survey of one of our organization’s year long relief operations. The 5-1/2 hour car journey to Noakhali weaved through the traumatic jams of early morning Dhaka, past Comilla interspersed with Buddhist monasteries, ancient and new, and the cool green pastures of the country side. Arriving at the Noakhali Chairman Ghat or port, our Sea Truck waited for an hour for the high tide to swell up enough for us to travel safely, while my colleague and I sat in the captain’s cabin. Normally it is prohibited for common passengers to venture up to this point but we were special guests of the captain’s, requiring a special price for this facility! Sea trucks are normally old ships built on a small scale and navigated by a captain in a proper little cabin, complete with windscreen wipers and a high chair for the capitano. The 2 hour ride through the waters of one of the world’s deepest rivers Meghna would reach the Char land or newly formed land of Hatiya. Nijhum Dwip lay at its Southern most tip where people had started migrating during the 1970s. The Government then decided to place some pairs of deer and monkeys in the mangrove forest and more recently termed it a National Forest.

Once we reached Jahajmara or the docking point at Hatiya, we were greeted by our colleagues who instantly advised me to wrap up as the day was ending and the bike ride to Nikhum Dwip would prove to be very windy. But as luck would have it, someone who travels with a complete first aid kit, Swiss army knife and hand sanitizer, forgot to pack her woolies as she naively thought the seaside would be temperate climate! Cut to the bike ride: as the wind whipped at my face I huddled clutching the sides of the bike to balance myself while managing the 2 backpacks I was carrying. The two hour journey wound through picturesque villages, past carts full of hay stacks and warm smoke rising out of the kitchen fires that comforted me every time I passed a house, with its inhabitants preparing for the cold winter evening. We finally reached another point where a boat ride awaited our passage to the island, and it was time for me to climb down the bike. In the most un-lady like fashion I stumbled off, while the locals suppressed their giggles and teetered towards the Nouka (wooden boat). I stumbled in, looked up and sat staring at the inky nothingness above me as the boat’s diesel engine sputtered to life. I had forgotten how the sky looks so vibrant with stars outside Dhaka. December meant Sirius, the Scorpion, the Orion and many other constellations are clearly visible this side of the hemisphere and I hugged the stern of the boat trying to recognize them, while our motor bikes, alongwith chicken, geese, a baby cow, ducks, medical equipment and people all traveled towards Nijhum Dwip. We arrived and a short (well fifteen minutes of piercing wind on the bike seems less than the two hours I had endured!) bike ride got me to a desolate looking two storied building that is originally a cyclone shelter converted to a “hotel” during the off season for disasters. As I was the only woman in the group I was given a room with an attached toilet that only had a partition wall hence all the noises that men usually make while in the toilet were clearly audible as their toilet was bang next to mine! Before dinner I was taken out to view the markets where our organization had built some shops and also to buy me a sweater which I did much to the collective disappointment of my colleagues who were pressing a bright orange ladies sweater with fluorescent green and purple flowers on me. My saner version made them feel I was not trying to blend in with the locals…. Dinner was a merry affair of duck meat and a local sea catch Bata maach. Bedtime and the dogs started a symphony of howls accompanied by yowling cats while I balled up in a fetal position under the blankets.

5:45 am and my alarm went off causing me to jump out with chattering teeth. We were out by 6:30am and a ten minute ride got us to the edge of the forest where we left our bikes in a clearing and ventured to the interiors on foot. Luckily, I saw my first deer as soon as we got off who had bravely come this far to catch the first warm rays of the sun this early winter morning. He/she stood with its ears shooting straight up staring at us rooted to the spot for a few seconds before bounding off bobbing its white behind and tail with a sea-saw motion. We walked deeper into the forest and flocks of deer watched us stealthily from behind the mass of Keora trees in the early morning mist before bouncing off gracefully picking their way through the jutting roots of these mangrove trees. At times we saw deer with gigantic antlers which was surprising as they do not come this way of the forest, the trees being closer together making it harder for them to maneuver their antlers about. Yet they came, they saw us and passed on a discreet signal to the rest to move back. The deer population had boomed due to a lack of their natural predator other than local dogs and some fox leading to a lack in their food sources during the winters. Home to many local birds, I noticed from the corner of my eye (I could only manage corners as I was too busy watching out for the roots that stood out at peculiar angles making it hard not to stumble) kingfishers in varying sizes and colors, bee eaters, herons and black drongoes swooping above us, past us and even sitting at eye level and peering at us with lively interest!  We stayed there until 8am then got onto our bikes and drove off,  with a Peregrine Falcon solemnly bidding us adieu perched on a skeleton tree, all fluffed up in the weak morning sun!

The day began with group meetings as the villagers shuffled in wearing their best attire and smelling of Meril Vaseline and Atar. After the meeting and a lunch of more duck meat, Bata maach  and fresh Eelish that we had chosen from the fisherman, we headed out to the villages on our trusted bikes. The warm afternoon sun and the pleasant sea breeze drove away any drowsiness that accompanies a sumptuous lunch as we labored through the sandy beach to reach the village. The mangrove forest on one side, the white beach sand that made it difficult to drive a bike and a background of the light blue-gray Bay of Bengal glittering behind the coconut trees made the perfect setting to abandon all n just laze back with a book. I happily clicked away with my camera as the bike jerked and swerved around some mangrove roots, over patches of grassy land, eventually reaching a lazy looking village with cane huts, ducks and chicken busily clucking away. The project was to build sturdier homes for the cyclone Aila affected villagers and help them get a grip on their lives where they had lost all due to the devastation of this natural disaster. We walked past groups of women watching us with curiosity and inspected the homes, while I went inside some to take pictures of the interiors. As I opened the window at one house to make sure the clasping was strong enough, I was greeted by a scene of the Bay of Bengal peeping through the grove of coconut trees and the neighboring houses. It suddenly brought a renewed feeling of empathy towards the locals as I felt the striking contrast of this picture perfect setting versus the lack of basic needs they suffered from. Potable water was a problem where 300 families used one deep water tubewell and only one primary school catered to the entire region of more than 10,000 people. Medical care was practically non existent and at least 1 in every 5 women died at child birth due to complicacies. As we sat on little jute woven stools while the villagers huddled on a large tarpaulin tent that was provided to each family directly after the cyclone occurred, I looked around at the eager faces and the young mothers barely past their adolescence looking at us with hope and expectation. Nearly everyone thought we would have more in store, and actively put up requests to build them a school, hospital and other facilities that they felt they deserved. One woman pointed out to us the 30 foot tall tree she and her family has scampered up when the cyclone had hit them managing to survive, while all her livestock of chickens, ducks and goats were swept away by the angry surges of the Bay’s waters. However, our house had not only helped her regain some of her loss but she had managed to save up and now owned a growing stock of chickens, ducks and goats that helped her earn a decent living. I left the village feeling a growing sense of pride for the good work we had done yet wishing we could have provided them with more. Building a house was the first step towards stability, but insuring livelihood, a bright future for their kids and providing them with medical care was still something in the far off future.

We traveled back to Hatiya that night and this time I was ready with my new sweater and braved the icy wind, ignoring my aching buttocks and hoping my thighs and calves were forming new muscles with all this balancing! We put up at a local hotel in Hatiya that required us to provide details such as age, name, phone number and purpose of stay, in very explicit details. After arguing with the proprietor as to the purpose of knowing my age I stalked off to my room and was surprised/elated to see a tv, a table, chair and comfortable looking bed with an attached bathroom that did NOT only have a partition wall but something was still missing… I twirled around and once I was done with my pirouette I realized that the room was lacking a sink! Fanning my inflamed ego and acting the perfect toughie, I endured washing up without sink in a toilet that had a floor which easily let all the water flow out to the room, leaving a gleaming puddle at the doorway! Dinner was hot and delicious with crab bhuna (we had carried the crabs back from Nijhum Dwip)  and okra cooked with shrimp. I went to sleep watching tv and felt almost at home until someone in the passage outside my room started having a loud and cackling phone conversation. I decided I preferred the howling symphony instead!

The next morning we headed back to Noakhali after a breakfast of paratha and vegetables at the local dhaba and a sorry attempt at bathing where the hotel owner gave us hot water which really could have passed off as cold enough to drink! The bike ride to the ghat was actually enjoyable as I had learnt to balance my back packs by now and bask in the sun streaming in through the trees along the road. This time we were to travel in a launch which takes anything from cars, buses, buffaloes, cows, goats, ducks lined up in a jute bag like a pack of cigarettes and of course, people. We reached the Noakhali ghat and while waiting for the office car to arrive, bought some fresh eelish fish haggling with the fishmonger, not over the price but the miserly amounts of ice he was packing the fish with. Ice being rather expensive in most areas, nobody likes to give away excessive amounts if they can help it! We bundled it up in layers of polythene and sped off to Dhaka, leaving a cloud of dust and a longing to return to the serenity of the Dwip’s beach for a lazy afternoon amongst the clucking chickens and frisking goats of the village.

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