Beach Life, Bangladeshi Style


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Asia » Bangladesh » Barisal
June 27th 2008
Published: October 4th 2008
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We've passed another day or so in Bangladesh and more random little truths reveal themselves. I'm noticing, in no particular order, that a) goats are tiny here, b) you never get your instant coffee in the same mug twice (my favourite so far had 'Happy Birthday Canada!' printed on the side), c) Bangladeshi women have a uniquely purposeful way of walking, and d) it is so likely that you will get stuck in your hotel's lift that every one you go in has signs telling you not to panic. Our own personal lift breakdown - inevitable - occurred in Jessore. The thing jammed itself on the way between two floors with a clunk and a 'whuuuum' as the electricity died and the lights went down. Seth, who has a few issues with confined spaces, held it together pretty well as we stood waiting in the sweaty metal box of a lift, making nervous jokes and pretending not to be imagining scenes of death by suffocation.
In less than ten minutes, the staff were prizing the doors open and helping us clamber up onto the third floor. From goats to lift problems, the little truths are fun to discover. The big ones cut a little deeper.
From Khulna, we wanted to head into Barisal Division (divisions in Bangladesh are like states/prefectures.) This area of the country is known to be very rural and pretty, and there's a small town at the division's southern tip called Kuakata, with a beach overlooking the Bay of Bengal. Last year's hurricane Sidr swept through this area, badly affecting the lives of its inhabitants. I read that even many months later, lots of people were still displaced and living in temporary shelters. Charities like the Red Cross have been working really hard to help but the fear is, when cyclone season comes around again this year, these people will be in a dangerously vulnerable situation. Bangladesh's geographical position seems to mean that it gets the worst of everything when it comes to natural disasters. Before I came here, I used to think it was a wonder that such a vulnerable area could be populated at all, let alone so densely, when it just gets pelted again and again by waves of misfortune. Now that I'm here, though, I can see that life isn't that black and white.
The trip from Khulna to Kuakata took about ten hours, and involved two buses and about six ferries. (Seriously.) That's a lot of time waiting to cross rivers, a lot of time thinking. My moods were up and down like a yo-yo. For one, this new land was showing up all kinds of beauties; rivers were either wide and brown, small and green, or thin and blue. There were kids playing in ponds full of lilies. We passed picturesque houses and huts with straw roofs. Even the endless ferry crossings, despite the hanging around, queuing and constant piling on and off the bus, were enjoyable in the sense that they were such quintessentially Bangladeshi experiences. But I found myself trying to imagine the effect of a flood or cyclone on such a totally flat, watery area. If the rivers swelled and became impassable at one, or any, or all of these crossings, you'd be stranded. What would happen to your house, your belongings, the members of your family less capable of looking after themselves? You'd need a boat but how practical or safe would that be in rough conditions? And what if the fields flooded and the roads became submerged? What would happen to the crops and the livestock? It seemed to me, too, that the further you were into this network of rivers, the closer you came to the boundary of the sea - the bay of Bengal - the more difficult your situation would be. I then started wondering why the seven year old boys who were climbing on and off the bus trying to sell us all bags of peanuts weren't out there enjoying their childhoods and learning stuff in school. In seeing the problems these people were having, I could spot my own glaringly naïve luckiness.
At one crossing, I watched an old man with drawn cheeks begging. He wore a dirty shirt and walked with a cane. He climbed onto each waiting bus and moved slowly down the aisle, asking each passenger for money. Most, like us, said 'sorry, no.' Outside, he approached a man in a checked shirt who was buying bananas at a stall. The old man begged as the wallet emerged and again as it was returned to its pocket. The man in the checked shirt shook his head and rushed away. Dismissed by us all, the old man hurried away on his cane, as quickly as he could, looking for the next bus. He looked dejected and I realised that he probably wasn't much older than my dad, but had lived in such a way that his body seemed so much weaker, his skin so much older. Then another beggar stumbled onto the bus and the process began again. In India, you see this just as much. I haven't mentioned it much whilst blogging, but it's there everyday and it always makes me sombre. It's real life throwing a bucket of cold water over you. It's important.
So it was with mixed thoughts and a dose of solemnity that, after a pink and purple sunset, I crawled off the bus in Kuakata. Seth, more jovial, had been chatting with the boy next to him. We rode on the very Bangladeshi cycle-with-a-wooden-table-attached form of transport to a number of little beachside hotels which were full. When we finally did find one, we checked-in and headed out for food in the tiny town. I was starving - coconut water and crisps will only get you so far. We followed the bright white lights on the one 'main' road and checked out the basic restaurants on offer. All we could find was cold rice and meat and fish of questionable age and safety, stored in cupboards around which fat flies buzzed. The clientele were young men and young couples who had come for a beach holiday. Yet the place did have the run down air of a holiday destination recently hit by a natural disaster and in only the early stages of recovery. Don't worry; we had come to Kuakata in full knowledge of its recent misfortune, and of its rustic nature - we weren't walking around there expecting gourmet restaurants or a Hard Rock Café. And the dire food situation was much sadder for those who lived in Kuakata than it was for us. But hunger is hunger, isn't it? Tell these things to the stomach. Questionable fish, luke warm veg curry and cold rice it had to be. (We met a Red Cross worker the next day who confirmed that the food in Kuakata is so poor, and living conditions so basic, that he has to go to Dhaka every ten days just to pick up supplies and eat a few good meals. Trust me, that is a journey of many, many ferry crossings and many, many hours.)
The next morning, we hung out at the beach. In the Subcontinent this is not about sun cream, swimming shorts and bikinis. It's about strolling around and even swimming fully clothed. In full salwar kameez I lay on a lounger, drinking royal tiger (Bangladeshi red bull), watching boys cruise the beach on their motorbikes and a bunch of people burying their friend up to this neck in the sand. Seth drank coconut water and contemplated the scene. Further up the beach, we saw fishermen repairing boats. The palm trees that had survived the Sidr stood amongst stumps which hadn't. A great grey cloud rolled in and it started to rain. A man came up to us, stopped a metre away and just stared (normal.) He had a big, rusty machete in his hand (less normal.) We moved away with fake casuality and a lot of haste, and were swept up in requests for photos by a couple of guys on holiday at the very instant that I got a gust of sand in my eye. Despite my protests, the photo shoot continued. Somewhere out there, there are photos of Seth, two grinning holiday makers, and one cross looking woman with a red eye watering profusely. Ah, Kodak moments.
We left Kuakata sooner than expected, due to the awkward departure times of buses bound for Dhaka, our next destination. We did manage to commission a lunch of fresh looking pomfret, which is something. When it was placed, grilled, in front of us, with its charred eye and gawping mouth, I said to Seth, 'It's probably thinking, 'if you hadn't killed me, I'd have been able to tell you, 'Don't eat me! I'm ill!' ' How unfortunate that I was totally right.



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2nd July 2009

Good
I am very happy browes this site.
28th July 2010

Barisal is my Heaven....

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