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RIVERS OF HOPES AND DREAMS

THE SOURCE OF THE CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA

-30 °C

Neither Sarah nor John Connor had time for loose bowel movements when being pursued by liquid metal killer cyborgs from the future. Arnie's original creation has flesh and blood over his metal skeleton. He bleeds like you and I. Fortunately he doesn't need to contend with certain sanitary inconveniences in developing countries. "I'll be back after toilet trip"

It was literally the terminator number 2s that kept me in the hotel room for 24 hours. I had began to feel a little ropey the day before. Thankfully I was able lie down at Tipurs house for a couple of hours prior to an overnight train journey from Sylhet to Dhaka.{Did I tell you by the way that the majority of Bangladeshis who have set up Indian Restaurants in the UK derive from the Sylhet region?}. Fortunately the trip could have been more traumatic as the scarey squat loo on the train was not required. As soon as I arrived in the choking capital however the quesiness inside was a prophesy of toilet bound doom. Fortunately I was able to check in to the hotel at 6am (official check in time was noon) and was given a free upgrade to a relatively decent room. Every time I tried to leave the room nevertheless, a sinister gurgling sound in my bowels told me to stay put. Hence I was confined to watching movies in the room including Terminator 2.

The next day was the start of the Sunderbans trip. My guide Eusuf met me at the hotel the following lunch time when when by that time fortunately it was all quiet on the lavatory front. Even so he insisted on buying me some medicine to prevent any unwarranted sequel.

The most celebrated visitor attraction in Bangladesh was upon me as we took a psychedelic rickshaw to the departure to the ghat. Departure was late although this meant that we witnessed all the action at sunset. The challenging impossibly challenging maneuver of upmteenth vessels was paraded before us. As the sun disappeared the riverside factory businesses quickly gave way to mangrove forest.

Many of the more basic boats had no sleeping accommodation. I however had my on tiny room with no bathroom. Certainly it was adequate. It was clean and cool enough at night. Not a room on the QE2 but the views that awoke me from the windows on the next few days to come could not be beaten.

Basically the Sunderbans is a natural region in Bengal. It is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world. The Sundarbans covers approximately 10,000 square kilometres of which 60 percent is in Bangladesh with the remainder in India. The Sundarbans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.There are apparently 400 tigers in the Bangladesh side and every year 20 to 30 people are succumb to fatal attacks.

Although I was wearing my anti tiger spray it was a case of safety in numbers as I was sharing the boat with approximately 30 others. Myself and a non English speaking 60 year old Japenese guy (the sun in-law of another passenger) were the only foreigners. I had fears of multi -lingual inadequacies confining me to room, kindle or MP3 player. It thankfully transpired that a good number of guests spoke good English. This meant I was able to share the jokes, and good natured banter with the other guests and staff. Once again the Bangladeshis were able to show another facet of their national character. They were a lot of fun. To my surprise we shared the same sense of humour. . I am so pleased that my experience was not diluted with the usual westerner backpacker conversation. Where are you going, where have you been and where can I get a Twinky bar '(for Americans)? After living with these people for 72 hours I certainly felt able to penetrate the national psyche even more and really get to know the people. Although people clearly cared for the country there was a feeling that corruption was stifling progress. 85 % of the population are Muslim although this cross section appeared to be very tolerant and far from fundamental. They do not pass judgement on any religion (or non religious choices). Nobody attempted to really lecture me. It was however a christian evangelical Whisky trader who came closest. On the negative side,there there is a feeling in the country that although they have a female prime minister (Sheikh Hasina) enjoying her 2nd term office, she has done nothing to further the repressed women of the country. This criticism however could have been leveled at Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Indira Ghandi (India) or even Heir Margaret Thatcher (UK).

The trip took us all the way from the capital to the Bay of Bengal. During this time we we moored up and went on various excursions to the exotic swamplands, to remote beaches. A memorable stop was the Rash festival at Dublar Chor, by the beach. This is a fine picture post card bay overlooking hundreds of small wooden fishing boats. The catch is often left in the sun so the dried fish can be taken to the market. As you can imagine the smell can be rather pungent. Hindu devotees believe that at this time, they can wash away their sins by bathing in the salt waters. I would have done the same but there was not enough salt in the sea. It was marvelous to see folks come from all over the country to enjoy the carnival atmosphere. Myself and Eusuf escaped from the rest of the crowd and explored this all ourselves as we felt that the other members of the group were slowing us down. Eusuf is as black as a Sub-Saharan African. I can vaguely do an American accent. Hence when approached by locals were adopted two rather unconvincing fake nationalities.

Apart from dodgy impressions, other things did not go according to plan on the trip. The motor had to be cut for several hours on the boat while we drifted away from the shallows. As we often ran behind scheduled certain detours to the more dense tributaries of the river had to be curtailed. My fellow tourists were also very noisy hence we did not see so much wildlife. We iid not see any tigers although we saw some footprints, some of which looked suspiciously fake. To really penetrate the swamp lands you need too explore on a smaller vessel I conclude.

Despite some flaws of the trip it was very enjoyable ant It was actually quite sad to say goodbye but necessary to move on. I decided to focus my last few days in Bangladesh exploring the historical side. The Sunderban trip culminated in Khulna. This was a day trip to the Unesco site of Bagerhat to see the 60 dome 15th century mosque, A seven hour train journey took me the town of Rajshahi. This is the one town which could be described as being reasonably pleasant. Once again a fine riverside location awarded fine views at sunset. An excursion to Puthia took me to a lovely temple complex with. The caretaker took me around the Hindu site. He is a devout follower of Vishnu. He tells me that he saw a king Cobra in the village that did not bother him as he believed it was a reincarnation of Vishnu himself. When I am approached by such a serpent I do hope he produces ID before I decide to run.

A bus to Bogra took me to the the least appealing city of the trip. Much smaller than Dhaka although somehow as chaotic. The whole place seemed somehow ugly and dirty. Although I only found one in my room, you felt you were only a step away from cockroach at all times. Bogra was however a perfect base to to take excursions to impressive Paharpur to see the pyramid like remains of a massive 8th century Buddhist Monastery that apparently had 177 separate monk bedrooms. Another day trip took took me to lush green countryside to walk around the still intact walls of an ancient citadel.

It was whilst staying in Bogra that I was invited to another local family house for dinner. The father was an amiable guy who had worked in a number of NGOs. His teenage sun and 8 year old daughter were eager to chat and show me their impressive artwork and various photos. The girl who affectionately called me Gavin Uncle, had had an operation to remove a portion of bone from her wrist after she had picked up some information. Her arm was in a sling although she was clearly on the mend. Apparently her bone would grow back fairly quickly. I assumed that this could have been very serious. She could have lost her hand perhaps. Her father however told me that indeed her life had been very much in danger. The brother in-law in the family had been hit by tragedy when his wife died at a young age. His 9 year old son is currently been looked after by his eldest sister in Dhaka. He cannot understand why there are so many divorces in the West as he feels he would do anything to still have his wife.

The brother in-law took me to the coach station. I took a luxury coach to Dhaka (6 hours). This night journey really was Western standard at least. The seats went far back enough to sleep. The bus was spotlessly clean and if the AC was too cold blankets were allocated. At a mere 4 pound 50 this was twice the price of a standard bus. The bumpy road however was far from luxury.

So there you have it Bangladesh. There are brief pockets of AC luxury to be had in amidst the crumbling streets and buildings. In terms of blockbuster sites it cannot compete with India. It was however a trip I shall not forget. One place in the world where the assets clearly are its people. I most certainly will be back.

Posted by gavinbose 03:47 Archived in Bangladesh

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