24.10.2014 - 03.11.2014 28 °C
"Manchester United are a load of shape shifting, holocaust denying morons and as for David Beckham, the baby munching tosser". No offence to any MANU fans. If only I knew the Bengali for this line, just to wind people up or just to add a little bit of variety to my retort to the usual response. Where you from?. Manchester. Manchester United?. David Beckham?. To be fair M.U connection fatigue complex was mainly just encountered in Dhaka and not the rest of the country. Even so the fine people of Dhaka seem to look at Beckham as the patron saint of hairdressers as his picture features in most barbers. I should not complain too much as the Manchester connection may save my life in the future. I can just picture the cold blade of the guillotine touching my neck at the Saudi execution yard. A last minute reprieve is granted for the MANU connection. Manchester united, "yes Royal pardon".
Head decidedly attached, I arrived in Dhaka airport on 24th October after a mere 30 minute flight. Even this gave me enough time to munch through an anemic butty and flick through the inflight magazine. As usual for budget flight mags, it is full of advertisements and articles for luxury hotels that nobody on the aircraft (pilot included) can afford. As I looked out of the window at the labyrinth of cultivated fields and intertwining rivers below I am aware that at this point Vagina Rabbit Hatch Ltd is just a micro managed world away. My daily stats would be of not consequence to the 166,280,712 people of Bangladesh.
After the taxi touched down an uncharacteristically short 10 minute journey took me to my hotel in the Northern part of the city. After some
half-hearted unpacking (just enough to ensure picked up the correct luggage from the conveyor belt) I explored my immediate surroundings. Many trips to India had to an extent prepared me for some of what I was about to see. The streets and buildings surrounding the exotic/Orwellian sounding Uttara Block 6 district were dusty, dirty and dilapidated. With a constant soundtrack of honking horns, I walked down a road lined with crumbling buildings giving the impression of a war zone. There were beggars with pipe cleaner arms, venders, rickshaws, goats, the odd cow and err more goats. The poverty and the dirt in view was still shocking. Beginners Asia this ain't. The intensity of it sparks your senses more than India even. My immediate thoughts were What have I got myself into for 3 weeks.? I could have gone to Thailand! Fortunately it did not take long for me to realise that I had made the right choice and this was the beginning of a memorable trip.
Following instructions from the hotel and kindly passengers assisting, I took a rickety old bus on a bumpy 1 hour journey to the old town. Really not a great distance from the old town but travel in Dhaka is painfully slow. The traffic reaches unbelievable levels of congestion. 7 Km took 1 hour. Probably I was traveling not much faster than walking pace. I would have walked but I was scared of falling down a manhole or being embalmed in carbon dioxide. Looking out of the bus window it certainly seemed a more alien world than India. Hardly any of the signs used the English but Bengali Sanskrit instead emblazoned the numerous billboards .
There is no denying that Dhaka is hard work. It's sprawling, overcrowded, polluted. There are however some interesting sites, including 19th century pink palace museum, peaceful Lalbagh Fort, and the fine colonial buildings of the university. There was a very enlightening Liberation museum which provides photos and testimony of the genocide (as many as 3 million people) dealt out to those wanting to escape the oppressors of West Pakistan during the 9 month war leading up to independence in 1971. I spoke to a cafe proprietor about this and he told me that everyone had lost someone in the conflict. His own brother, a businessman, was fatally shot by an indiscriminate Pakistani bullet. It certainly brought it home.
The highly atmospheric little narrow winding streets and markets of old Dhaka are well worth a visit. It is as if life has not chanted for a 100 years. The old streets and indeed every street is lined with brightly decorated cycle rickshaws. A highlight of Dhaka for me however is Sadarghat, the main departure point for the city's river transport. It is not pretty and not quaint but it is fascinating and so vital to the country, 20 percent of the country is covered in rivers after all. All life can bee seen on the Buriganga river. Canoes, rowing boats, commercial vessels and ferries compete for often limited space. Ridiculous numbers of mainly none swimmers cram themselves on board, embarking on journeys that could even last days.
inevitably with a population of 15 million interaction with the locals cannot be avoided. This has proven to be one of the best aspects of the country. They are genuinely the friendliest most welcoming and helpful people I have met even though language is sometimes an issue. People really go out of the way. If there is one English speaker on a bus they would rush to my aid. I was slightly cynical at first when a student showed me around the old town. I assumed that he just wanted to earn a little money. No he just wanted to practice English. Coincidentally I bumped into him again at the end of my trip, took him to a local cafe and gave him 1 hour of English tuition. This was the least I could do. Its a shame I can't really speak English. Despite the hospitality, the constant chaos on the streets meant that I could only stay briefly (2 days). I needed to get out. I needed a chance to dry clean my lungs hence I got a train East to Srimangal, the tea producing area.
On arrival at Srimongal station I witnessed an apparently regular display of public dissatisfaction with the leadership. Public protests in Bangladesh usually coincide with public strike days. There was a march on the platform that day that was a border line riot. Eventually this spilled out onto the train. To avoid this explosion of anger I deliberately jumped off the wrong side of the train with 2 boys and their uncle whom I chatted to during the 7 hour journey. They directed me away from the scenes at the station and insisted on helping me find some accommodation. This is typical of the kindness of the locals. I found at that there would be much more to come.
Apart from the little show of emotion at the station, Srimangal seemed to be a a small, forgettable dusty little town. However the countryside surrounding it was a huge patchwork of paddy fields, assorted crops (including beetle nut), gentle hills and endless tea plantations spread out over gently undulating hills. I stayed at a lovely Eco Lodge in a village out of town. This was the only place on my travels where I really met any foreign tourists. I got chatting to a very adventurous Australian pensioner who seems to be traveling perpetually ever since some property sky rocketed in the 90s. There was also an English family and an English couple also to exchange stories with.
Most of the conversation happened at breakfast time. One day after a substantial breakfast I decided to hire a good quality mountain bike and explore the area. It is a is a cyclists dream. The roads are not too complicated to navigate, they feel relatively safe, are well maintained and relatively quiet. Despite being easy to cycle it is never less than scenic. Amazingly cyclists are allowed to freely roam around the vast tea gardens of the plantations. If that is not pretty enough I also visited the enchanting Madhabpur lake. On this day in which I cyled 60 KM Kids and adults would run up to my bike. People would even cycle with me for a bit. As the only foreigner around I was treated like some kind of celebrity.
It was good to have a day on my own steam. On another day however a guide was certainly required to accompany me on a half day jungle tour through some pretty dense foliage. During this time we were treated to the the peculiar sound of the notoriously illusive barking dear and the sight of different varieties of Macaque monkeys. With every step I was conscious of avoiding a common species of brightly coloured spider as large as my hand span. This creature would perch itself menacingly on its dense web often just above face height from me. I kept getting told that they were harmless. Physically harmless but certainly mentally damaging if they were to land on me though! With every sense of arachnophobia vanished from my being, the guide finished the day by taking me around the village and introducing me to the village leader who apparently worshipped nature as his god. This no doubt including canine impersonating deer and orb spiders.
Plans were stuck in a web a bit after that due to another strike. Striking always affects public buses; with little car ownership this often drives the country to a halt. I had not intended to visit the town of Sylhet as I believed that I would be seeing more of the same, ie tea plantations. It however transpired to be a worthwhile trip. Sylhet is famous for the Keane bridge over the river. This was a magnificent spot at sunset where I chatted to the locals about this 100 year old iron structure, built by the British and damage in the war with Pakistan. It is a very narrow bridge, unsuitable of large vehicles. It is also fairly steep. Local guys wait around eagerly to earn a few Takas helping to push the rickshaws over the bridge. It was at Sylet that I made friends with a telecoms engineer who invited me around to his house twice for dinner. HIs wife made a decent bengali dish on the first night. That evening I told Tupur about the excursion that day I had taken to Jaflong near the Indian border. The journey, across some very rough terrain, was nevertheless through some pretty impressive scenery of wide winding rivers and jungle topped peaks. Jaflong is on a picturesque river setting. A popular tourist spot for locals is also a place where the river is mined for sand and stones.
Tupur saw me off at the train station for an overnight journey bound for Dhaka again. This was to be a 24 stop prior to a Sunderbans river trip that I had arranged with a guide in Srimongal. I had plans in my mind for a 1day detour from the madness of Dhaka to the intriguingly named "golden city'. But alas my mischievous bowels had cruelly decided to put me under house arrest for a day. The shit didn't quite hit the fan but at one point I thought it might.......