Stage 3: Calcutta - Dhaka - Kathmandu


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Asia
February 23rd 2009
Published: April 2nd 2009
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Bangladesh

It has been often described as the worlds basket case in relation to the continuous string of bad things that happen here. From natural events such as devastating floods to wars and power struggles. So with this in mind I arrive in Bangladesh with somewhat low expectations of the place... just another country to tick off I suppose... Well how I was very much wrong. Unlike Burma which is known as a very beautiful BUT troubled destination, nothing much is known about Bangladesh. Testament to this is the fact that among the hundreds of travelers I have talked to I have never encountered one who had actually been to the country. So it is with this same anticipation that I took to Burma I carried with me over the border from India to Bangladesh.

Quick Facts:
* Worlds most densely populated country
* Population is 90%!M(MISSING)uslim
* A one meter rise in sea level would mean a loss of 30%!o(MISSING)f their land area
* All petrol and 2 stroke vehicles are banned in the capital
* Plastic Bags are banned

And so the adventure continues....

In a moment of instant awakening I cross from one extreme to another. India with its harsh in you face dirtiness and contempt into the somewhat different melting pot of Bangladesh. I am greeted at the border by masses of staring faces pondering over my appearance. I am also a little unsure what to make of this now rather large group which has now surrounded me. However it is short lived as my 'helper' assigned to me by the bus company grabs me, checks me through customs quickly and loads me onto my connecting transport. Strange.

For the next two hours I am thinking back to my first Bangladeshi encounter and start chuckling as it was the strangest situation to be be just surrounded by people who are just content to just stand and STARE at you with no malicious feelings whatsoever.... Anyway back to the story. My bus from India drops me at my first substantial Bangladesh town of Jessore. I step out into the middle of the town the bus speeds away and I take out my guidebook. Within seconds I have a small group of two or three surrounding me, in 30 seconds I have 10 then 20 people, watching. It is the weirdest feeling to have such a big group of people around you not saying a word just content staring. I cant help but laugh at it now however at the time I think it was very unnerving and I believe with my 'always be cautious' approach that I take to all countries I thought the worst; that this MOB could attack. So how little I knew and how much I was wrong. I mutter the words of my next town and then about 5 helpers grab me and put me into a bus. Once in the bus the same pattern emerges. A pattern that is to follow me throughout Bangladesh my greatest source of fulfillment and at times my greatest source of frustration. Now all the people in the bus stare at me.... not for a minute, not for an hour: the entire journey.

During the bus ride to my next destination I sit alone eyeballed by a packed bus. It is about halfway through that a local gets on board moves to the back of the bus then seeing me comes back to the front and parks himself right next to me. I am still in this apprehensive state utterly bewildered by what I had previously experienced. He then breaks into perfect English introducing himself then establishing a pattern which was to emerge as the 'Bangladeshi 21 questions':

1) What is your name?
2) Where do you come from?
3) Are you married?
4) What are your academic qualifications? (The most important question)
5) I would like to move to your country, can I?

The guy is amazingly nice as he tells me about his past life living in Australia. He talks for hours and everyone in the bus is thoroughly engrossed in the conversation that they cannot understand. The other Bangladeshis look at the man with amazement asking him what the language coming out of his mouth is, he repeats 'ENGLISH' at the top of his lungs and they all sigh and treat him like a deity. I arrive at the city of Khulna in a few hours and my friend stops the bus, arranges a rickshaw to take me to my hotel, waves goodbye then goes back to his now busload of worshipers.

Well what a day, fast forward a few hours of contemplation in my hotel. I am into my guidebook and come across a few sentences which explain everything that has just happened. "In Bangladesh it will be the closest thing you will ever be to becoming a celebrity, just grin and enjoy it they are very inquisitive people and have nothing but good intentions". Yes me Brad Pitt.

In the afternoon of what is still my first overwhelming day I proceed to book my boat trip through the Sunderbanns the worlds largest rain forest. I bump into a feisty Swiss guy called Nico, we hit it off immediately and he proceeds to tell me that I am the first tourist he has seen in a few weeks in Bangladesh. He starts to lay Bangladesh out on to the table for me. He speaks of the amazing friendliness of the people, how he stayed a week in Dhaka and never had to buy dinner because of all the random invitations to come to locals houses. And as for the people staring at you... just enjoy it! What a place

The next day me and Nico take a guide from a tour agency and head to the small fishing town of Narail. Here we are greeted by a family of fisherman who use a very unconventional fishing technique. They have a gang of trained otters which chase large unsuspecting fish into the waiting nets of the fisherman. It is an amazing grass roots method and we are spellbound by the little cute guys. Check the photos out, they really are cute however they are quite aggressive. The last remaining otter fisherman in India was mauled to death by his own group of otters, funny but true.

Tonight we are invited to dinner by a very friendly Bangladeshi by the name of Boby. He had heard that a foreigner was in town and was very expectant to meet me. He is an amazing larger than life character that talks non-stop about love, religion, Bangladesh poverty and of course trying to get out of here. We talk for hours having Bangladesh curry (much better than Indias) and special naan. Something that keeps coming up and is a little unsettling for me is his holistic heaven-like view that he holds for our western countries. It is apparent that they have an idea that Western countries are held in such high esteem, only secondary to Heaven The roads are paved in gold, that no-one has to work hard, all will be provided for. We spend the night trying to convince him that this is not the case that you must work damn hard, however it does not work. This god-like opinion is not just held by Boby it is held by 99% of the country, perhaps that is why we are treated like absolute royalty.

We walk home after dinner and Nico gets fired up by a "Work in Europe" billboard, the only English sign in town. The billboard advertises VISAs for Romania which is part of the EU and by going through this country you can end up working in Italy or Germany. What a load of rubbish he says they would not be allowed outside of Romania to work and would be stuck there. I have been there, it is trash and Bangladesh is that heavenly country when placed next to Romania. Poor guys I really feel for Boby and his people. I personally think they are stuck in this densely populated country with very little opportunity and the only escape is the thought of moving elsewhere even if that means believing in a fake heaven. This I suppose is what keeps them going... a dream and that is better than nothing.

For the next few days we continue to amass more and more friends. The number of friends we have accumulated in two days is staggering. I spend the days going from shop to shop just talking and eating, what a great country. Then hell strikes in the form of the Bangladesh mutiny. It seems that a section of the border guards unit (totaling 40,000) has taken over the army headquarters and have started executing generals. This comes as a major shock to us all as we cannot imagine that such a thing could happen in such a peaceful country. It is apparent that although the place is at peace it is still on a knife edge. The government cuts all the phone lines, cellphone networks and internet access to prevent spread of the uprising. I cannot contact home to tell them I am OK and out of danger.

With the Mutiny still on my mind we board our boat for our journey to the worlds largest mangrove forest, the sunder banns. We travel a few days by boat to the forest. We spend the days walking and boating through the forest accompanied by our armed guards in case of tiger attacks. Is a surreal experience living on board riding through picturesque mangrove canals. Me and Nico meet a great German guy Thomas who is a bit of an obsessive compulsive alcoholic (Aren't all Germans!). He even managed to smuggle a bottle of Whiskey into Bangladesh which is a dry country. Another passenger is the head of the UN in Bangladesh who uses his 'diplomatic powers' to bring more booze on board. We spend the night having our techno rave disco party on top of the roof of the ship partying hard to my little i-pod speakers... cough cough 'losers'.

The trip turns at the southern point of the forest and rushes back to civilization as the cook has fallen to a stroke and is temporarily paralyzed. It is at this point that I become very good friends with the Bangladeshi pair of Maksud and the Rock. They are upper middle class bankers who have traveled the world. It is good to talk to some worldly locals and they speak candidly about the state of their country with a little but of disappointment about their issues abut also ultimate pride about who they are.

When we get back to civilization we arrive to hear the news that over 100 people are dead from the mutiny, unfortunate news. From here me and Nico travel to the town of Barisal and catch the "Rocket" to the capital. The rockets are huge 19th century river paddle steamers similar to those used on the Mississippi which can take up to 2000 passengers. Waiting for the Rocket me and Nico are surrounded by an unusually large crowd of 50-100 starers, we are now pros at accepting this attention! The rocket arrives and I am astounded by how massive it is, however I do not believe it is big enough for 2000 people. THEN we get inside to a mass of uncompromising humanity. There are people everywhere, lying onto of one another, lying next to the engine, lying on stairs.... everywhere, everywhere, sweaty, everywhere. The smell is overwhelming from the people, the stench, the lavatories. We rush into the first class cabins which have a grand (sort of) appearance to them. Me and Nico spend the night drinking tea and chatting on the first class deck with our fellow well-off locals.

We arrive into the senses overload place that is the capital, Dhaka. The capital is cloaked in smoke from the hundreds of slave driven brick factories and the river water a thick black oil color. It is repugnant but stirringly majestic scene watching little canoes trying to occupy the same river space as massive container ships. Chaotic flow

The next day I go out onto the river and become one of those little canoes trying to not get run over by the ships. Is a hair raising experience especially when we start taking on masses of water. I cross into the poor region of Dhaka and see child sweatshops firsthand, I stare down at my made in Bangladesh t-shirt. Next is the old part of Dhaka where there is just masses and masses of humanity falling and lying all over itself with monkeys thrown in. We meet Maksud and Rock from Sunderbanns for lunch in their air-conditioned bank headquarters, air con.

From here I say goodbye to my friend Nico and head north to the oldest city in Bangladesh, Madhurpur. Again I am not even off the bus when I am surrounded by 3 women wanting to show me 'the sights'. I say yes however 'seeing the sights' in Bangladeshi actually means 'seeing the family'. After about 5 families I manage to wriggle out and go see the actual ruins.

The last stop in my itinerary is the world heritage listed monastery of Paraharpur. Is a mammoth journey through remote villages to the site. My book lists this area as the place where Indiana Jones would live if he was a real person and rightfully so. The place is huge, amazing and totally deserted. I spend the day climbing over the behemoth structure and letting my own Indy out. Now if this place was in any other country there would be hundreds of picture snapping tourists and all areas roped up to avoid access, but not here. This is Bangladesh!

The next day I perform a long 16 hour, 7 bus marathon to leave this enchanting country. I think I have been blessed by seeing two such amazing countries side by side, Burma then here. Over my entire time here (except for the Sunderbanns) I saw no more than a handful of tourists which I think again has added to the intrigue. What it may lack in major tourist sites say in comparison to Burma it makes up for it in intrigue, off the beaten track adventure and blessed people. It is truly an unexplored amazing place. I have tried to lay out what happened to me here however what I cannot stress enough is the friendliness and absolute at ease of the people. I truly could have gone on for pages and pages listing every friendly face that I had the pleasure of meeting. It is a true diamond in the rough.

India

Well back to India with all its dirtiness.

I catch a jeep up to the tea town of Darjeeling and encounter a surprise in the form of a young Indian guy called Tenzing. He turns out to be a very friendly young guy and upon arrival in Darjeeling will not let me check into a hotel demanding that I stay with him. I spend the next few days relaxing and lazing around his parents place. Is a real treat especially watching the cricket on the couch, unfortunately India is kicking our own NZ teams behind. During the days I go see the Himalayas from beautiful viewpoints, take a ride on the toy train and laugh at the craziness that is the Holi festival. Is a really great experience for me to just relax with such a loving family especially with one that has such a great cook in the form of his ten year old sister. Again it is with sadness that I say goodbye to the family after 4 days and head into Nepal. The experience here has changed somewhat my less than ideal view of India.

Nepal

I pull into the border of east Nepal and spend a good ten minutes wondering around looking for someone to check my passport. I am then informed that there are political roadblocks and I cannot go to Kathmandu by road, great. It is either a 4 hour motorbike ride to avoid the blocks then a flight or a 40 hour bus ride back through India to get to Kathmandu. No-brainer we load up the bike and my guide with his snakeskin boats and go. Is an interesting ride speeding around blocks which range from rocks thrown onto the road to trees on the side of the road cut down to stop vehicles. When then reach the manned blocks which are formed by 20 odd political activists touting weapons ranging from bits of wood to iron pipes. My moto driver swerves into the hills to avoid these louts and hits the dirt single tracks. After a long ride and a long wait for delayed flights I arrive in Kathmandu... exhausted.

Thanks for reading. I have again invested a huge amount of time into trying to discuss such an exquisite country that is Bangladesh. However again like with Burma I think I have fallen short but it gives an idea as to the true hidden gems that these unassuming countries possess.

Here is the link to my pictures:

Bangladesh Photos
India Photos

Shaun














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25th February 2010

Wonderful
Hi we know that i just got the feeling of exploring my own country with every word of yours. Thanks, its great to read. Asif

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