Heading from Kolkata towards the India/Bangladesh border, I kept asking myself what could go wrong. It was a morose way to be thinking, granted, but this was the third time i've planned to come to the country, and both of the previous times, something fell through. I started examining my visa in the back of the car, thinking it might have some kind of expiry problem. Meanwhile Seth snoozed next to me. He falls asleep in any moving vehicle. It's a gift, especially on this occasion, when it took us an hour and a half to get out of Kolkata; a city which, as much as i love it, has serious traffic issues. Our driver turned out to be slightly insane, which kept the journey interesting. He insisted on stopping for lunch at a small dhaba, where he proceeded to have a fight with two men who claimed he was crazy, and for a few minutes it looked as though we were stranded in West Bengal with no transport and one grinning nutcase, but he changed his mind and drove us onwards, ejaculating bizarre comments now and again. (I liked him.) The scenery in rural West Bengal is lovely. Big old
trees, flat paddies, swampy pools where the kids go to play. The cow dung patties that villagers use for cooking fuel were drying on tree trunks with big hand prints in them. I never knew poo could be so picturesque.
An hour later, we were in Bangladesh. I could hardly believe it. 24 hours on, I can say that my first impressions are - it's green. It's dusty. It's watery. It's exciting. We meet quite a few people who come forward and speak English with us, and many of those who don't still gather around us, curious. Last night, in the markets of Jessore, we had a crowd of twenty six people watching us drink bottles of Coke.
(I'm not kidding, I counted) It would be a nightmare if you were in any way paranoid, but so far I've found it quite sweet and not a problem. People keep sneakily taking my photo on their camera phones, but that happens in India too. I've been told i look like Priyanka Chopra, Suzanne Khan and Princess Diana since arriving here. People like to be optamistic, don't they? Priyanka would be mortified to find herself compared to a scrawny 28 year
old British woman with elf ears and a grubby tan.
Coming from India, you notice straight away the absense of the Hindu Gods that you see everywhere there - no Shiva, no Durga, No Kali - but pretty little mosques instead, and the call to prayer sounding over loud speakers as you ride around town in a cyclerickshaw. You do see the occasional old Hindu temple, in the classic Bengali hut style. We saw two like this in the morning, on our way from Jessore to Khulna.
We're actually just using the city of Khulna as a base from which to visit nearby Bagerhat, but there are two things I like about the place. First, the prawn roundabout outside our hotel. I think more cities should have seafood themed roundabouts. (Doha had a giant oyster.) Second, the Bengali food served in our hotel is incredible. There's a certain type of thick, juicy fish called bhekti, and you eat it in a curry. It's out of this world.
We spent this afternoon looking at the 600 year old mosques in Bagerhat. These buildings are a rusty red with sturdy corner pillars and nice bands of decoration. I've seen
buildings like this in Gaur and Pandua (West Bengal), and to be totally honest I found those more impressive, but at Bagerhat what you have is a wet, green, jungle setting. You see these old mosques reflected in marshes, and there's no sound in the air but that of cicadas and birds. Crowds of children gather around you and adults approach you too, to find out where you are from. Bangladesh is not at all touristy. As a visitor, it's an intense place to be. It struggles with it's massive population, it's very poor, and so many natural disasters strike here, such as Hurricane Sidr last year. Our hotel is full of poeple working for Oxfam, Aids Awareness and Unicef. It makes me feel a bit guilty. When you're out there, surrounded by markets full of massive jackfruit, pungent spices and gorgeous mangoes, and with lush fields, and pools where fisherman are reeling in their catch, and meeting so many people, you find it hard to imagine that the place can have such problems.
I mentioned jackfruit so let me close on that note - the fruit is in season now, and India and Bangladesh are crazy for it.
Jackfruit are huge and spiky; if one fell out of a tree and hit you on the head, you would definitely be dead. When you cut them open they are full of gooey, orange, pulpy pods, which smell a bit bad but taste delicous. Each pod has a conker like pip in the centre. The whole of Bangladesh smells of jackfuit right now. People are talking about them constantly, and asking us if we get them in England. (When we say 'no', they look smug...) These fruit are everywhere. They travel amongst our bags on buses, ride passed us on rickshaws and roll about our feet as we walk in the markets. Last night we bought one in Jessore, and had to ride it home with us on a cyclerickshaw - it weighed more than a bowling ball. Since eating it, i have stunk of it all day. This is what confuses me though; when we travel on buses and our fellow passengers are carrying a jackfruit or two in their luggage. Since every town in Bangladesh is currently full of jackfruit, and they weigh about as much as a small pot bellied pig, why make life hard for yourself
by buying one in one town and carting it all the way to another? Surely you could just pick one up on arrival? After discussing this in depth, Seth and i have concluded that jackfruit from some towns must be tastier than in others, and therefore worth lugging along with you over vast distances. I'm telling you, it's a complicated business, this jackfruit scene.
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