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“Reflections from the Land of Rivers”: Taking the Plunge

In this series, I share my personal reflections on my journey to Bangladesh from 25 May–4 June. I have written this as a diary.

25 May

The white clouds billow in the strong sunlight around the plane outside my window. We are shortly going to land at Dhaka airport where, hopefully, Jnan Nanda is waiting for me. Time now to quickly take stock of the situation I find myself in.

Here I am embarking on a unique journey as a Buddhist going to a Muslim country to discover more about the minority Buddhist community through actual experience and interaction. Luckily, everything has been arranged with the help of Venerables Dipananda and Jnan Nanda, with assistance from their contacts in Bangladesh. They have come up with an exciting but vigorous itinerary covering a large area of the Chittagong Plains and Chittagong Hill Tracts in 11 days.

What will I find? What difficulties will I encounter? Will I have any regrets? Will I be stopped before I even begin? The answers are refreshingly and intriguingly unknown for the most part, aside from the expected temples and archaeological sites. But I am never one to shirk from such challenges.

I have only two recurrent worries dampening my enjoyment even before the trip begins in earnest. One, will Jnan be at the airport to meet me? If not, I will be lost, not knowing where to go or whom to contact! My second worry is for tomorrow: will I be successful in my application for a permit to the Chittagong Hill Tracts? If denied entry to this area, my understanding of the Buddhist communities in Bangladesh will only be partial, a less integrated perspective. I will know the answer to my first worry very soon.

. . .

My first worry proved unjustified. Jnan called me on the phone as I was waiting in the immigration queue. He was waiting for me with three others: his brother Naren, the chief monk from his village temple, and another monk living in Dhaka. “Vandane Bhante,” I said to the monks, and “Kemon achen,” to Naren—greetings for monastics and laypeople in Bangla, the language of Bangladesh. I continued showing off: “Amar nam John.” (My name is John.) “Apnar nam ki?” (What is your name?)

Ubiquitous CNG in Dhaka. From John Cannon.
The chief monk of Bangladesh Bouddha Mohavihar. From John Cannon.
Jamuna Future Park in Dhaka. From en.wikipedia.org.

My four-day crash course in Bangla from Ven. Dipananda achieved its purpose by eliciting smiles and creating a relaxed atmosphere. Using the language of the country, no matter how limited, is always appreciated and a quick way to weaken barriers and misperceptions.

The plan was to rest at Bangladesh Bouddha Mohavihar before taking the overnight bus to Chittagong. This small vihara is in fact a flat located on the fourth floor of a building whose tenants seemed to be a mixture of residential and commercial.

I was energized and eager to explore the streets of Dhaka, but it began to rain shortly after we arrived. After the rain stopped, one monk took Naren and I to the nearby Jamuna Future Park, the largest shopping mall in South Asia, as the monk proudly told me. Jamuna Future Park is evidence of a growing pride and confidence in modernization and consumerism by some segments of the population in this developing country. The mall is not fully occupied, with some floors silent and dark. However, I enjoyed our conversation over a cup of coffee far more than the building and what it represents.

Later in the evening, I had my first experience of local dining in Bangladesh. Before leaving Hong Kong, I had told Jnan I would not eat after the midday meal. I wouldn’t want to eat alone, and I certainly couldn’t envisage having monks watching me eat! However, on this occasion I decided to join Naren, who as a layperson was very eager to have dinner.

We found a local Muslim restaurant bustling with customers. I noticed the area for washing hands at the back of the restaurant. Washing hands is de rigueur both before and after meals in Bangladesh.

Facing me across the table, Naren asked me one question: “Spoon or hand?” Without hesitation, I answered, “Hand, of course.” He beamed a bright, wide smile, indicating his approval of my choice. Yes, I was determined to eat as a local and to eat whatever they ate. Accepting another’s language and food (and, of equal importance, how they eat their food) is effective in breaking down the perception of the “other,” the “foreign,” the “different.”

After washing my hands, I left the choice of food to Naren: chicken, fish, curry, and vegetables I don’t know the names of. Now came the tricky part—using my hand to eat with aplomb, like a native, and being careful only to use my right hand! Well, I know I need more practice!

I observed Naren carefully as he kneaded and twisted all the ingredients on his dish together with his fingers while I, eager but too mechanical and slightly uncoordinated, ate the various ingredients separately, one by one. Naren laughingly and patiently told me to mix everything together, as doing so enhances and intensifies the sense awareness of the flavors. I followed his advice with a noticeable increase in pleasure to my taste buds.

. . .

Now in the bus station waiting for the bus to Chittagong. Didn’t think I would survive the CNG ride here! My heart was in my mouth half a dozen times. Crossing the streets of Dhaka is a “walk in the park” compared with a wild CNG driver on dark, dimly lit streets filled with equally mad drivers.

The Dhaka CNGs have wire mesh everywhere, outside and in, producing a feeling of claustrophobia and leaving passengers locked inside and at the mercy of the driver. There is minimal lighting on the streets at night, and driving is chaotic as no one follows traffic rules. Vehicles swerve madly in and out of the traffic to evade other vehicles or, more likely, the ever-present potholes on the road, giving one a very bumpy ride indeed. I was knocked sideways and continually jostled by the sudden use of the brakes during this mad dash across Dhaka. I must have good karma. What a wonderful, enervating first day in Bangladesh! Next stop, Chittagong.

For further information, see:

In Conversation with Venerable BuddhadattaVillagers Observing “Uposatha” in Rangamati

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