"Exhibit A": us; the goldfish bowl that is Bangladesh

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February 15th 2013
Published: February 15th 2013
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The streets of Dhaka old town make Indian cities seem serene. It is electric, charged, and if you’re not alert you may well be, by a rickshaw. In a city of maybe twenty million, over 600,000 of the inhabitants work peddle rickshaws; they are everywhere, often in great interflowing streams, but more frequently static as tangled metallic chains. Delhi – with its multitude of motor rickshaws, motorbikes and cars - is now apparently more polluted than Beijing. Poor Dhaka (alas not pollution-free) has its rickshaw culture to thank on two counts: peddle power is as green as it gets, whilst they account for an awful lot of employment. They are also quite beautiful with hand painted panels and embroidered canopies. If they were Dhaka’s only endearing feature we’d like it very much, but its jewel are the people who are as welcoming, hospitable and generous as any we have ever encountered. Yes, here you might as well be marked “Exhibit A” because pause for a second and you will draw a crowd. But engage and the Bangladeshis will melt your heart. An average day will see you exchange something like several hundred passing greetings, maybe you’ll be stopped for thirty short conversations and shake at least twenty individual’s hands. As per many countries the number one question you’ll be asked is “what country?” Fortunately for us the answer “England” is always well received (almost every Bangladeshi has a family member, or knows of someone, who has or does live in the UK). The second question is typically “why are you here?” Answer “we’re just tourists” and your questioner’s beam will broaden. Of the few westerners Bangladeshis run into most are on business and the locals are both surprised and delighted that you would consider their humble country (as proud as they are of it) worthy of a visit by choice.

As I write this we have only been in Bangladesh for four days. We crossed over the border from Agartala in India’s Tripura to Akhaura and were immediately befriended by two young youths at the train station who insisted on escorting us onto the train: to ensure that we mounted the correct one and subsequently procured seats (via a little baksheesh to the bursar – the trains are mobbed). They then rode with us for several stops like some ceremonial guard. On arrival in Dhaka we headed on foot from Kamlapur station towards the Old Town area; predictably we were soon lost amongst the mayhem. A gentleman approached us and gave us directions, only to lead us through most of them, before placing us on a rickshaw that he insisted on paying for.

Most budget guesthouses do not accept foreigners although, fortunately, Hotel Al Razzaque International does. It is not glam nor particularly cheap but is clean, friendly and in a great location above a popular restaurant; plus it is close to both Sadarghat on the Bariganga River and the area known as Hindu Street. We checked in and then found a chai stall (called cha here in Bangladesh) at which to sit and watch the (crazy) world go by. A quiet cuppa on the street is never going to happen in Dhaka and we were soon surrounded by an intrigued crowd. On rising to leave we attempted to pay only to find that someone had already done so. It was also at this point that we were given our first luncheon invitation which, exhausted, we politely declined.

Wandering the next day, lost in the maze of tortuous backstreets en-route to Lalbagh fort, we chatted with a friendly gentleman, Shahjaham Sharif. Before we knew it we were headed with him back to his house to meet the family over lunch. His wife was not fazed in the least to be presented with two scruffy westerners and was soon dishing up some wonderful dishes as we relaxed and chatted with their lovely children. On departure the youngest son guided us to the fort and accompanied us around it; so escorted, our number of photo-calls were mercifully reduced to single figures.

Unlike many Indians, Bangladeshis are not just inquisitive, they don’t gather around you to simply stand and stare; they are interested to know about you, your country, your motivations for visiting, to inform about their country and to discuss broader matters. They are fully aware of world events, opinionated and like to argue their personal views. Of particular pride is their status as the one country on earth that has physically fought for its language. The 21st of February now marks International Language Day. This was ultimately established to commemorate the massacre in 1952 of twelve Bangladeshi (then East Pakistani) students who were demonstrating for Bengali to be recognized as their native language (as opposed to the Urdu spoken in West Pakistan). Independence didn’t actually arrive until after the riots in 1971 when West Pakistan did little to aid their kin following a catastrophic cyclone that claimed half a million lives. The martyred students posthumously achieved their aim with the formation of an independent Bangladesh (“land of the Bangla-speakers”). Bangladeshis are intrigued as to the British diet (“… you eat rice?!”, “you can eat chili?!”), are very pleased to learn that marriage is still a popular institution and that many have a significant longevity (although our personal childless state is always a cause for sorrow) and are fascinated to hear of our racial and religious mix. The revelation that Britain also has poverty, homeless and beggars is greeted with amazement, whilst the existence of dole-spongers merits angry incredulity (“why do you allow it?”, “whole families…. Surely not”, “you should beat their bottoms with sticks”). They are a passionate, loving, loyal and demonstrative people: same-sex hugs are a far more common farewell than handshakes among friends and you may well find yourself at the end of an affectionate touch whilst conversing, even with strangers (again within gender boundaries).

We left Dhaka, bound for Morrel Ganj, on a Rocket - one of the fleet of old British paddle steamers that ply the waterways of Southern Bangladesh. Ours was named Ostrich – worryingly a non-swimming bird – but, according to the purser, the same vessel Michael Palin travelled on during the filming of “Around the world in 80 days”. Rather than our usual deck class we splashed out $30 on a first class cabin with their sole access to the upper foredeck. We didn’t get Michael’s (cabin no. 5) and instead were placed in the VIP cabin (a misnomer I assure you – it was the only available and is usually for single occupancy). The overnight journey was very peaceful with some great views of river-side life, but soured somewhat at its termination when every conceivable worker approached us demanding Baksheesh.

Baksheesh is engrained in Indian culture and we are never shy to tip when a service of some form has been performed. But, as we were to discover, here in Bangladesh many service workers (bus employees, guesthouse room boys, temple wardens…) think that westerners should cough up merely because they can. Of course you weigh this up against the kindness and generosity being thrust upon you by total strangers and mostly comply. But why should a hotel boy who has done nothing other than annoyingly woken you every morning at 7 a.m. offering to go get breakfast (even after you have repeatedly asked him not to do so) receive 50 taka on your departure when a rickshaw driver would have to peddle you and your luggage over 5km for such a sum? Indeed, particularly annoying is the fact that you will be told in no uncertain terms when your baksheesh is deemed insufficient. When this occurs I have been known to nod sagely, retrieve my initial donation, look into their expectant eyes, shake my head, then turn and walk away.

And all this money talk brings us inevitably to Bangladesh’s poverty; and it really is a poor country. Early in a conversation many people will state how impoverished their country is, almost by way of an apology. It is still, supposedly, on certain scales, the most corrupt country in the world. I do find that hard to believe, but our new friends here describe many examples where they have had to play the game in order to ensure a fair outcome. Others without any financial, or more importantly connectual, influence are less certain of justice.

For a visitor it has to be said that, with very few exceptions (alcohol – not surprisingly as Bangladesh is something like 90% Muslim, and the Kolkata-Dhaka buses), Bangladesh is markedly cheaper than even India. On a non-travel day two people can live comfortably on less than $15 and that is without any gratis lunches. The last caveat sounds crass and it is, but such is the nature of the Bangladeshi that you will not be able to consistently refuse their generosity – receive with an open, grateful heart (if given notice of any kind, a gift such as a box of cakes will be very appreciated, although you’ll be derided for such an act and, no doubt, will also be forced to eat a large proportion). Enjoy your hospitality, engage, if there is a connection endeavour to further it and simply revel in what is humanity at its finest.

And so, via Morrel Ganj, we arrived in Bagerhat - a (relatively) quiet little town, but one that will always remain close to our hearts. We stayed but three days and in that time made three sets of friends; on one of those days we also – bloatedly - ate with all three of them. Our very special thanks go to my brother Dat and our adoptive family, the poet Prantik and his beautiful gifted wife, and our guide and friend Raquib – meeting any of you would have made our visit to Bangladesh, meeting you all within the space of a day was mind-blowing. We are only disappointed that those dozen or so (that really is no exaggeration) other people who also invited us into their lives had to be declined because there simply wasn’t time. Many, many, thanks to the wonderful people of Bagerhat.

Particular mentions must go to Dat and family for inviting us to their niece’s wedding which was a truly unique and wonderful experience and to Prantik’s wife who rushed home from school (she’s a teacher) and made us fall in love with her in the mere minutes we shared together before we had to run off. Another extremely touching event happened – I believe – purely by chance: on leaving town very early in the morning we bumped into Raquib’s uncle on the street (a man whose name I’m ashamed to say that I do not know and who is unable to relate it himself: with learning difficulties he has extreme speech impediments). He simply recognized us, felt safe with us, picked up Ali’s day pack and walked the not inconsiderable distance to the bus station with us. On the way we stopped off for a couple of Lal chas (red teas) and at the bus station Raquib’s uncle simply waited, smiling, with us until our bus arrived. He then silently walked away and I actually had to run after him to thank him for his help and kindness. As the bus finally departed we passed a shack and there he was, watching out for us, waving vigorously. I don’t think I’ll ever forget his beautiful pegged-toothed smile – really, for us he summed up Bagerhat: unconditional friendship. That is one unique town.

I guess I’ve not mentioned anything about Bagerhat’s tourist attractions. The 5km walk through lovely rural countryside to a series of similar mogul tombs and mosques is very fine. The best of these, the sixty column mosque, is not unimpressive but still isn’t awe-inspiring; whilst the resident crocs on the lake at Khan Jahan’s tomb were elusive during our visit. But, fuck-it, Bagerhat doesn’t need sites, we’d return in an instant and – just to prove my brother wrong (“you’ll not remember us”) – I have a strong feeling we will do.

The renowned destinations in Bangladesh (outside of those listed thus far) are the Hindu Kontagi temple in the north west; the tea plantations around Sylhet in the north east; Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second city in the east, then further south to the beach resort of Cox’s Bazar and the island of Saint Martins; the Chittagong hill tracts with its native tribes to the far east; and the world’s largest littoral mangrove belt, the Sundarbans, with its Bengal tigers in the far south.

Bizarrely, we headed to none of these, choosing instead to make for the southern coastal area of Kuakata at Bangladesh’s foot where you can view sunrise and sunset from the same beach. Deliciously, Lonely Planet made a spectacular series of blunders that really make you doubt whether bungling Butler (the author responsible for the 2009 edition) had actually performed any research at all. According to both the 2004 and 2009 LP editions, it is eight hours between Bagerhat and Barisal – try a mere three; and two hours between Barisal and Kuakata - with four ferries to negotiate it is actually seven, on a good day. God help the person who, under their (mis-) guidance, decided to visit Kuakata on a day trip. The lady author of 2004 may have accidentally transposed her times for these two routes, whereas the incompetent Butler seemingly merely plagarised her work. One glance at a map and you’d know that these times are implausible. Oh, and now that’s really started me off: the 2004 edition had a great map to Bagerhat (that still accurately describes 2013 Bagerhat), whereas the 2009 version suddenly bears no resemblance to the town and landmarks are totally mismarked: sloppy, sloppy work.

Kuakata isn’t somewhere I’d recommend: the beach is a great expanse of featureless sand with an unpleasantly muddy sea-fringe that Bangladeshis (bizarrely) flock to on weekends. It has horrible, over-priced, guesthouses; unremarkable food (there is so much fresh fish available and it is all served either fried or curried – much as you’d get in any inland town, with no appreciable improvement in freshness or quality); and, dare I say it, the locals weren’t particularly nice. The number of photo-calls whenever we ventured anywhere near the beach – over one hundred in the space of an hour – was also close to our limit.

We’d told all the friends we’d met that we would be staying in Bangladesh for three weeks, the maximum amount of time – given our schedule – that we had available for our visit. The sad truth is that after just two weeks we were totally fatigued. If you have never experienced life as a mega star – and who has – then Bangladesh is going to totally freak you out. India holds no comparison. Bangladesh’s strength is also its weakness – the people are just too full-on, you can never escape the glare of your celebrity. Beautifully, wonderfully, they welcome you, but it is incessant and… tiring. You have to constantly be polite and giving; the energy required is extreme. We took to sheltering the odd day in our room just for a breather, and every other westerner we met (all four of them) had resorted to the same strategy.

We contemplated visiting Chittagong (but it receives universally poor reviews). Cox’s bazar is merely a larger (even more touristy – with locals) version of Kuakata whilst St Martin’s Island is – apparently – equally unremarkable (and we’re imminently Andaman-bound). The Sunderbans have been made inaccessible for backpackers (government restrictions and prohibitive costs: at least $100 per person/day for deep ventures) unless you want to just touch its fringes (which for my money is fairly pointless); whilst the Chittagong hill tracts are still off limits (bandits / costly requisite police escorts for those accessible regions). As for the north east tea plantations around Sylhet – we’ve been to so many recently and the same for Hindu temples. Consequently, our wearied state and – it is sad to admit – a yearning for a beer drove us to beat a hasty retreat.

No one wants the Bangladeshis to change in any way shape or form – they are simply delightful – but, being a tourist here is draining; it is hard to maintain. As I type this I can hear you laughing at me – how can genteel, giving, attention be that demanding? Isn’t this your Nirvana, you self-centred, conceited bastard? My advice is come to Bangladesh; please do. You will certainly not regret it – but come prepared for zero anonymity and zero space. As much as you will receive you must be prepared to give. For us (given our fortunate recent travels) there really wasn’t that much to see (much akin to Sri Lanka, which we also adored): the beaches are unremarkable, the mosques and temples surpassed in many other destinations, the countryside equally; but the people… Really - unless you come you could never imagine - the Bangladeshi are (to our experience) delightfully unique and long may they remain so: bless them.

I’ve not mentioned their love of singing or that their passion for cricket surpasses even that of the Indian’s; they’re also mad about football. Smoking is still in vogue – there’s a fine potentially levied for public indulgence, but no one pays any heed, even on trains. The food isn’t as varied as in India and vegetarians really would struggle, but we certainly enjoyed it – especially the home cooking. The government is busy building many bridges over the countless rivers which will speed travel markedly in the near future – the current ferries make for lengthy delays. And, ah yes, the bus drivers… Maybe it is because of this frustrating stop-start that makes them push their vehicles to the limit: they really do drive as fast as humanly possible. That said, they are far more vigilant than their Vietnamese counterparts and we rarely feared for our lives – we felt their gung-ho reputation was exaggerated. Many of the rural roads are delightfully lined with millions of trees that have been nurtured into spectacular living tunnels and these are eerily beautiful when illuminated by your bus’s headlights as you career through them at night.

Bangladesh doesn’t deserve to finish on a sour note, but we have yet to provide a “peevishly shoddy” award in this blog (that speaks volumes for Bangladesh and its people). However, on returning to Dhaka we once again stayed at the Hotel Al Razzaque where a rather battered Ali (slipped in the shower, dislocating a finger and breaking a toe) developed our first case of the trots in over four months in the Indian subcontinent (amazing). Needing ready access to the loo before our 11 p.m. bus I inquired about keeping the room on for an extra eight hours: “yes, of course sir, that will another 650 taka” – the full price of the room. We’d stayed there twice, for multiple days each time, they were always almost empty and still they insisted on full whack for one third of a day; in my book that’s peevish…

And so we returned to the tranquil sanctum that is India and Kolkata (not a line you’ll see penned very often). Within an hour of checking-in to a guesthouse we had a beer in hand. Exactly fourteen days abstinence is without a doubt the longest of my adult life: we toasted the people of Bangladesh.

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18th February 2013

Tears in my eyes
Hi guys, hope your well. I had tears in my eyes reading about your experience in Bagerhat, it sounded amazing and restorative. Take Care. Ex

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