Reporter's Travelogue

Meeting people matters

Al Musabbir Sadi

Foreign tours are considered consolation for underpaid journalists. Yes, compared to employees of big corporate houses, media men are underpaid. Even my young nephew, who happens to be 12 years younger than me and has joined one of the biggest corporate houses in the country, draws a higher salary than yours truely, whose reporting career goes 11 years back.

But as members of the sports family, we forget about the money and rather find comfort in saying, “Have you talked to Sachin Tendulkar or shook hands with Brian Lara or interviewed Steve Waugh? Certainly you have not seen David Beckham with your own eyes or Cathy Freeman and Frankie Fredericks run in front of you. Believe me, watching the big duck-footed champion swimmer Ian Thorpe get out of the pool and walk within touching distance of you is no less thrilling.

As long as we do not have to really struggle in family life, the passion for sports keeps most of us going. And of course, the boom in Bangladesh's cricket since getting the Test status in 2000 has opened up options for more foreign tours than ever.

But when you prepare for a foreign tour and hear from many of your colleagues from other departments things like, 'You have fun during the trips, don't you?' it hits like a shell.

Following the Bangladesh cricket team both home and abroad is never fun. First, you spend a hectic week before catching the flight to arrange the ticket (invariably it has to be the cheapest one available!), make a dash to collect a visa and finally convincing the office to release the funds. May be there is just a few more hours to change your local currency into dollars and no time to pack. If your wife has a job, you also have to select on your own which clothes you will be taking. No wonder one finds out on the first morning abroad that the toothbrush is missing. You can share news and photos with your roommate but just can't even think of sharing that with him, now could you?

Apart from the pleasure of meeting and talking with sports legends, sight-seeing is also one of my great passions. Being a

The famous lighthouse at Galle, in the southern tip of Sri Lanka, stands out markedly a year before the tsunami struck

member of the middle-class, it was impossible to make trips outside the sub-continent during student days. But as a sports reporter, visiting countries like England and Australia were no longer just dreams.

Watching the unconquered peak of Machchapuchre (Fishtail), where no ice can gather because of its steepness, change colours during sunrise at the sleepy hill station Pokhra in Nepal and making a strenuous 16-hour trip by a bus to reach Kathmandu were all part of the same tour. Spending weeks in one of the greatest cities like London or the walking on the cobblestone roads of the historical Edinburgh, where the wind comes straight from the North Pole and hits your face like an ice pick, was great. Like any other Bangalee, I felt really proud to see a statue of Rabindranath Tagore at William Shakespeare's house in Stratford-upon-Avon and racing past Silverstone, Great Britain's home to Formula 1 racing, in a Renault at merely 100m speed chilled me while thinking how life was really like in the 300m fast lane! From there, any one would contemplate to lose himself in the wilderness and beauty of Cumbria, the Lake Districts in England's north, whose beauty still returns from time to time to colour my dreams. And standing in front of the Old Trafford, home of the world's most famous football club Manchester United, watching the names of the Busby Babes engraved on the walls, would certainly bring tears to your eyes recalling the disaster that killed so many great footballers in the Munich plane crash.

But it was a lifetime experience visiting Cairns during Bangladesh cricket team's tour of Australia and see the Great Barrier Reef, considered one of the great natural wonders of the world. It possesses an abundance of coral types and their variety creates a magnificent display of different shapes and colours which you won't believe until you dive down and see the world's largest coral system. Well, scuba diving was not on our list and we had to get on board a semi-submersible to watch the underwater view of the Coral Sea, creating just a one-day holiday from a hectic month-long tour.

Underneath, the coral reef exploded with a rainbow of colours arranged in serene beauty that put any landscape to shame. Bright red sea anemones waved their tentacles lazily in the current amid a carpet of magenta-coloured sea sponges. Fish unknown to you swam gracefully beside round masses of violet-hued brain coral. Brilliant blue starfish glowed from the reef like bright neon signs, while dozens of sea manta ray blanketed the seafloor in a carpet of coloured cushions.

I would rather stop telling the tales of my pre-Daily Star days here and start sharing my experiences of touring Sri Lanka. Ironically, both of my tours for The Daily Star have been to the island and the first thing I disliked about visiting the 'pearl of the Indian Ocean' was not having a direct flight. A five-hour stopover at Bangkok is boring to say the least with window-shopping being the only worthwhile thing to do before landing in a new country after midnight. What would have been a three-hour flight from Dhaka, takes about 12 hours and I don't know why, most of the flights arrive in Colombo just before or after midnight. So the first impressions you would get while making a one-hour ride to the heart of the city is you are damn tired but awake while the whole city is sleeping.

It took us almost four in the morning to settle at Colombo's most prestigious place to live, Hotel Galle Face, which is not five-star, but is in a vantage point. The wind and sound of the waves rushing to the beach was refreshing but what awaited us in the morning was even tiring than the past 12 hours.

All journalists visiting Sri Lanka must report to the Foreign Ministry upon their arrival and take a permit from the Information Ministry. People said that without it, any journalist could be deported from the country at any time. The Foreign Ministry was easy but the problem of moving in a big group is if you want to do everything together, it takes time. Hours went by to get the papers that helped getting a card from the Information Ministry. It sounds easy. But when you find out that not a single three-wheeler driver knows the place, you would get a free ride of almost all of Colombo. Lunch skipped and you are in doubt whether you would have enough time to catch the official press conference of the Asia Cup. Finally, a press card giving you the rights to work as a journalist in Sri Lanka is issued with the sun descending over the Indian Ocean and you still have to get the accreditation card from the Sri Lanka Cricket. Otherwise, no entry to the cricket party!

Well, for a country which has gone through decades of civil war, you cannot blame anyone for keeping things this tight.

Next, you start fighting with the climate. Humidity is the biggest discomfort in Colombo and you are soaked to your toes after a hard day's work. Refuge in the AC room gives you relief but when you are working against a deadline, you have to ignore the luxury of a soft bed and rush to catch the newsmakers. It gets harder when the matches start and you have to stick to the strenuous 7am-10pm working hours.

There was much talking about weather reports but no hint of a storm. And when relaxing at the lawn of Galle Face after sending the previews on the eve of the tournament opener, we experienced a horror that we'd only heard of. We could virtually watch the wind rush at us over the ocean and it moved so fast that we could not even run back for shelter before it hit. Awestruck by the beauty of the lethal wind, we could not turn our back to it and all decided to see what happened next. The glass lanterns that lit the lawns, was shattered in a moment with shrieking sounds, bringing us back to reality and we finally moved under a roof as the rain came along.

The Asia Cup itself was a disappointment and apart from defeating a weak Hong Kong, Bangladesh did not make any impression at all in the tournament where the hosts, India and Pakistan battled for glory. A couple of days' break in the schedule allowed us to escape the heat of Colombo and make a trip to Dambulla, where Sri Lanka Cricket built one of the finest stadiums of the world in the middle of nowhere. The state-of-the-art venue offers breathtaking views from the top and watching the descending sun play tricks on the waters of the manmade lake calls for snapshots to make the best souvenirs of all. With the nearby historical Sigiriya rocks being a tourist attraction, we could not avoid the short trip before returning to Colombo for the rest of action. Once the tournament ended, our flight plans gave us an extra day to explore the island. And what could have been better than going farther to visit the silvery beaches of Galle? Memories of Portuguese and Dutch invasions are spread all over the once important commercial port beginning in the 16th century, which lost its prosperity following the improvement of Colombo.

However, news of Galle being swept away at the end of the year by tsunami came as a shock. The beautiful cricket stadium was destroyed as well as the infrastructure on the coastline by the December 26, 2005 natural disaster that killed 31,000 people and displaced one million in the country.

Second time around, I ignored requests from colleagues and friends to have another drive through the Galle Road that stretched from the capital to the south-western tip of Sri Lanka. I simply would have not endured the damage done to the scene that enthralled me during the trip.

And when I found a man named Saman Perera, who drives a three-wheeler in Colombo, I knew how the casualties had left people helpless.

People like him, who works for 20 hours a day to hide from reality, does not care about anything any more.

“I was here when my entire family was wiped out by tsunami. My parents, my wife and all three kids died. When I got back to my home near Galle, there was no trace of their bodies. I returned to Colombo and has been working like a machine since then,” said Perera describing his tragedy.

“I checked thousands of bodies but could not identify any of my family members. Now I am afraid to sleep because their faces haunt me when I close my eyes. That's why I work long hours and get the minimum of rest.”

When I was leaving Colombo once again in the middle of the night after Bangladesh's fruitless one-day and Test series with Sri Lanka, Perera's words were buzzing in my ear, not the beauty of Kandy, where I travelled alone while my colleagues decided to wake up late because it was a rare newspaper holiday back at home -- the night of shab-e-barat. I don't know what future was being written for people like Perera on the night but surely, nothing could have been worse for him in the future.

Once again, I came to realise that meeting people, not just visiting places, is the greatest experience of all.

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