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1. May, 2015

Yup, unfortunately, they did notice the overstay on the Visa. After some sentimental goodbyes in the morning, I headed to the airport to await my fate. Although handcuffs were deemed unnecessary, my passport was confiscated and I was marched into detention by the police. I was never an actor in my younger days (unless you count all those times I ‘acted’ crying like a baby when the big boys picked on me), but the drama lessons in school must’ve rubbed off. Finally grateful for the fact that I can cry out of my right eye almost on cue (a result of several operations on the eye as a toddler), and finally grateful for that stutter I seem to develop when I’m nervous, I managed to convinced them that it was all a big misunderstanding and they just charged the standard fee rather than the astronomical amount they initially threatened me with. Ems 1-0 Immigration Police. Having said this, I have a suspicion that I’m expelled from the country for a period of time, though my level of Bangla is not sufficiently advanced to enable me to confirm this. No doubt I’ll find out when I try to go back one day. 

Despite this, I was tempted to ask for a refund given that the flight was delayed by 6 hours with no reason given. Even the flight had its moments. Having been present for the start of the monsoon season in Bangladesh, I’ve seen plenty of lightening over the past two weeks, but it looks all the more majestic when viewed from above through an aeroplane window. “Seatbelts on” says the announcer. Yeah, because THAT will make all the difference when our flying tin of sardines is electrocuted! 

On arriving in Kathmandu, I was offered a ride in a taxi. Not being one to think about…erm….anything really, I took it, and 10 minutes in, I started to worry that I was being kidnapped much like a scene from ‘Taken’ – then I remembered I’m not two stunning European teenage women, and instantly felt safer. I headed straight to a hotel recommended by some friends – “they bring you breakfast on the roof” they said. Yup, my room is on the roof itself. Win! 

The first thing you notice in Kathmandu in the sheer volume of tourists…..everywhere. I don’t mean travellers, I mean ‘tourists’. You can spot a tourist by one, or more of the following characteristics: 

  • Dreadlocks
  • An uneven beard
  • Loose trousers that are either too long, or two short
  • Tie-dye clothes
  • An ‘un-washed’ smell – “because I’m travelling man, it’s cool….”
  • A self-important, self-centred attitude
  • Every conversation involves some of the following words: “it’s a cultural/social/political/spiritual experience maaan….” 

………. 

This is far as I had written before now. I shan’t expand further on my time here due to the events that have occurred since. It seems inappropriate to talk, even retrospectively, of the beauty that is (was) this city. I had a great time here, and my heart and soul goes out to those affected by the Earthquake.

Here also ends the stories of my Bangladesh adventure. Move on now to the 'Nepal Blog' to continue.....

16. Apr, 2015

Being the last National event before my departure, it was fitting that the New Year celebrations would last more than one day. On passing the local park last night, I ‘moth-ed’ inside, attracted by the bright lights, the loud noises, and the unmistakeable smell that exclusively accompanies a conglomeration of people in a hot, sweaty environment. This, it turns out, was a fair, but not wholly recognisable as what I’m accustomed to. 

There were the usual stalls selling the sort of items that one struggles to give away at raffles, or that one re-gifts (sometimes, accidentally, to the person who gave it to you in the first place); there was a ride that people would sit in, and go round in circles (think of a miniature version of the London Eye, but completely powered by three guys who would push the structure around); a stage on which anyone who fancied a dance would perform to their favourite song in front of an audience (I was asked to perform, but they didn’t have any Westlife, and I’m not sure how to dance to Disney theme tunes); and an unstable, rickety, wooden structure they used for a Motorbike-wall-of-death performance (though I strongly suspect that I was in more danger than the rider himself). 

Being there by myself, I was a sitting duck for approaches from curious people. One conversation started promising enough, then quickly crashed and burned:

“Hey, you look like Jason Statham”

“Really? Thank you so much”, I blushed, “Why do you say that?”

“Because you’re white, and have no hair” 

Amazingly, another guy started a conversation the exact same way, but without the crushing insult to follow – he was nice enough. 

Today, finally, was my last full day in Bangladesh. When I first arrived, I had tea in the local stall, and ate some dodgy food in a local restaurant. Tonight, we did the same. I always liked stories that ended up doing a full circle. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t violently sick the last time though. Perfect timing eh? 

It’s been a helluva ride but, despite the complete lack of organisation, guidance, assistance, and personal boundaries, and despite the corruption, extortion, theft, and harassment, I’ve actually really enjoyed it, and I will genuinely miss a lot here. I fully intend on coming back at some time in the future, be it for weddings, visits, or just to see what changes have taken place but, for now, let me stroll on into the sunset with the National Anthem playing in my mind “Amar shonar Bangla…..” 

Until next time. “Abar decka hobe amar bhondu” 

p.s. As I pack, I notice that I’ve overstayed my Visa so there may well be another Bangla adventure ahead of me in the airport tomorrow, before I begin chapter 2 in Nepal :-s

14. Apr, 2015

It is now the year 1422 - Happy New Year to you all (or “Shubo Nobobosho” as it is said here). The New Year is known here as ‘Pohela Boishakh’. ‘Pohela’ stands for ‘First’ and ‘Boishakh’ is the first month of the Bengali calendar. It’s the equivalent of us calling New Year ‘First of January’ which, of course, many of us do. Given that they celebrate on the 14th of April, it also happens to coincide with New Year days in many other Southern Asian calendars e.g. ‘Songkran’ in Thailand. It coincides with New Year’s Day in countries such as Burma, Cambodia, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, amongst others. As for the actual year of 1422 itself, this is very much a Bangladesh thing. 

The story I read is that King Shoshangko of ancient Bengal is credited with starting the Bengali era. The starting point of the Bengali era is estimated to be in 594 in the Gregorian calendar. Hence the Bengali year is 594 less than the Gregorian calendar if it is before Pohela Boishakh, or 593 less if it is after Pohela Boishakh. Therefore, as of today, it is now the year 1422. 

We celebrated seeing in the New Year here in an exclusive private club on account of our friend’s membership there. Depending on the occasion, and time of year, one is expected to wear clothes of a certain colour: the New Year requires clothing of a red and white nature. Despite extensive research (a quick Google search), I can’t, for the life of me, find out why red and white in particular, as opposed to a different colour. Perhaps some of my Bangla friends can enlighten me? Anyway, this being so, I procured a red Panjabi and some white trousers. My only previous experience of buying a Panjabi here was awkward to say the least. Not only did the seller not like the idea that I may actually wear the thing, but also barged in several times whilst I was in just my underwear, and became increasingly frustrated when I continuously requested one that was wider at the shoulders. I can only conclude that shoulders are not generally wide here – I refuse to believe that I’m actually a size XXXL!! (Unless we’re talking about underwear…..ladies…..) No such issues this time though, they were more than happy to help me find the appropriate clothing. As I’ve said before, people are brutally honest here so, when they said that these made me look “ok”, that was good enough for me. Only negative comments might cause me to reconsider, as they would anybody. One friend of mine turned to me once and said “Ems, I might have to stop wearing short dresses. They’re really comfortable and they show off my body, but I hate hearing the negative comments such as ‘your legs are really hairy’ and ‘your willy is hanging out’” 

The club had made an effort, of that there is no doubt. In addition to a buffet containing Pantā-Bhāt (leftover rice soaked in water), onion, Shōbuj Lōnkā (green chillies), Āchār (pickles),dāl (lentils) & Bhāja Elish Māch (fried Hilsa fish), there was also a concert, some snake charmers, a puppet show, some bouncy castles, and plenty of stalls: there was something there to keep us all amused. We started off with a cup of green mango juice. It was lumpy, luminous green, slightly warm, and generally looked like it had been drunk, and vomited, already. It tasted even worse! But, when something is bought for me, I have no choice but to consume it. I’m sure that my face turned a similar shade of ‘gross’ soon after. 

I spent most of my time with one eye on the snakes (for safety reasons – and because I’m a big wuss), and the other on the puppet show (for entertainment purposes – and because I’m still a child at heart…..and at mind). Despite this, I missed out on what is apparently a very rare occurrence. Miss USA tells me that she witnessed one of the snakes have a poo. Having already on this trip witnessed lizards ‘doing it’, a monkey being taken for a stroll, and a dog peeing on another dog, I’m more than a tad gutted that I failed to add this event to my list. 

The celebrations definitely had an uplifting effect on people, with everyone dressed to the nines. Young women wore white saris with red borders, and adorned themselves with tip (bindis), churi (bangles) and fūl (flowers). All the men meanwhile take this chance to ‘peacock’ in their best Panjabis and aviator shades. It seems that you’re not considered cool here unless you have a wicked pair of aviators – it also allows you to let your eyes wander discreetly. It also made for an oh-so-fun-and-not-at-all-dignity-sapping game of “Let’s find Ems a Wife”. There are no winners in this game: unfortunately, I’m probably in the wrong place to find a tall, blonde, pig-tailed, freckled, rich super-model in her early twenties. I don’t think I’m asking for too much, am I? 

New Year’s resolution #1 – Stop looking for a woman who doesn’t exist

New Year’s resolution #2 – Stop accepting drinks that look, smell, and taste like toxic waste

New Year’s resolution #3 – Watch a snake have a poo

12. Apr, 2015

I recently received an email informing me that this site has now received over 4000 hits. I’m not entirely sure what the significance of the number 4000 is, but it did give me cause to ponder. I kept a diary in my younger days, perhaps some of you did too, and felt anger at the thought that somebody might read it. Nowadays, we all post our diaries online, and get frustrated if people don’t read it. The diary I had all those years ago was deliberately destroyed when I found it, and read it, years later. It was just so full of the typical boring angsts of a pubescent male: “I think I’m in love”; “Why doesn’t she notice me?”; “I received some wedgies again today – that’s 4 times in three days now”; “I noticed in the showers today that I have the smallest willy” (some things never change) The last two entries of the diary read thusly: 

July 5th – Today, we decided to leave Swansea and take a short holiday in Edinburgh. I’m told it’s a nice place. 

July 10th – I’ve just been violently mugged by a load of heroin addicts. Why on Earth would anyone choose to live in such a sh!t city as this? On a more positive note, my train to Edinburgh leaves in 30 minutes. 

I guess this shift from private, personal diaries to public ones stems from the boom in online social networking. There’s a certain irony in the use of the word ‘social’ in this context though, given that the concept of online ‘social’ networking is often anything but (depending on your view of ‘social’, of course). The more we do online, the less we do in person. Heck, even I have turned to updating this blog to save me from telephoning people so regularly. Anyway, my point is that we have evolved to live our lives online and, in doing so, publicise everything we do. I once saw the following statement….. 

“Mmm, bottle of wine, ice cream, and a film for one. With a life like this, who needs socialising?” 

…..posted on a social networking site! I’m not judging though, that would just make me a hypocrite. I’ve fallen victim to the same change in habits as all the rest. This is not true of clothing fashion though: clothing fashion is something I’ve never been able to grasp. Whilst others donned Hugo Boss, Fred Perry, and Calvin Klein, I’d always settle for the good old ‘Mat Alan’ range. On special occasions, I’d treat myself to a bit of Armani, which is available in Asda (his first name is George, right?) 

Fashion here is completely beyond my understanding. I’m not talking about the Panjabis and Lungis (effectively, an elaborate sarong that air-conditions your testicles), of which I have some, rather the ‘Western’ clothes that are worn. I saw one gentleman wear a t-shirt exclaiming that “Life is Beautiful” next to a picture of some shoes and an animated cat. I guess nothing says ‘beauty’ here better than some shoes and animated cats…..?

11. Apr, 2015

With the semester finished, and only the Final Exam left this coming Monday, we opted to escape for a few days of sun, sea, and relaxation. Our destination: Kuakata; our means of transport: everything bar an aeroplane. 

We started with a bus to Puran Dhaka (Old Dhaka), at the southernmost tip of the capital. Whereas the rest of Dhaka has modernized, Puran Dhaka has maintained its original flavour, feel, and traditions from centuries past. Travelling to this area really does feel like stepping back in time, and is very much like arriving in a different country altogether. The last time I felt such a change was when I arrived by train in North Wales, and the announcer instructed me to turn my watch back 30 years. Walking through the narrow roads, one passes countless workshops where the local farriers and blacksmiths practice their trades in dark, candlelit rooms, or alcoves if rooms are found wanting. Markets bustle with activity and noise, and numerous sellers compete for business. In one particular section of the market, I am sure I don’t exaggerate by saying that at least 10 sellers were each trying to shift about 1000 watermelons each. Exactly how they all manage to stay in business is anybody’s guess but mine. 

As we wandered, we passed by Ahsan Manzil, also known as ‘The Pink Palace’. Formerly the official residential palace of the Dhaka Nawab Family, who reigned in Dhaka from the mid-nineteenth century until 1952, it is now a National Museum. As with most things here though, it was closed for reasons unknown. 

We arrived at the Sadarghat Ferry Terminal, and found our boat. We were to travel by ‘Rocket’ as far as Barisal. Quite contrary to the luxurious scene my gullible imagination had inferred from this name, ‘Rocket’ is the name given to a paddle steamer that travels between Dhaka and Kulna, stopping at lesser ports on the way. This particular one was built in 1928, though it looked even older than that. Still, we’d acquired first class tickets, so we’d be the last to drown if anything went awry. Following the chaos that is Dhaka itself, relaxing in the sun, on the deck of a boat, as it lazily floats down the Buriganga River was, in itself, a pleasant escape. Much like the bus-system, passengers for the boat hop on and off as we approach some ports, without the need for the boat to actually stop. In fairness, if anything, this is safer with a boat because one is unlikely to be hit by another boat in the process. Then again, this is Bangladesh, so….. 

What can’t be avoided are the company of fellow passengers, many of whom will gladly crowd around and stare at us – no conversation, mind, just stand and stare. This stretches to the windows in the cabins. If, by chance, one forgets to draw the curtains, one will notice a crowd of people standing at that window, and staring in just to watch what the white people do. In amongst crowds such as these though, there will always be one or two genuine and interesting people. That night, we met with one old man who was formerly a member of the Bangladesh Air-Force Military, and had the stories with which to back up this claim. The best way I can describe him is like that favourite grandfather we may have that has seen the World, and takes great pride and joy in sharing his stories and experience with anyone who’ll listen. When he was questioned as to why he had not followed his son to live in the USA, his simple answer was that, despite the troubles that this country suffers (and, mainly, causes), this was his home, and he was proud of it. I admire such levels of loyalty. It cast my mind to another song by Tim Minchin, namely ‘Not Perfect’. Well worth a listen if you get a chance. 

Arriving in Barisal the next morning at 5:30am, we sought the bus that would complete our journey to Kuakata. Although the boat trip doubled the duration of our journey, compared to if we had taken the bus the whole way, our decision was justified when we found out that the bus we would have taken was attacked this morning, resulting in 22 deaths. I hope, with all my heart, that this personal run of serendipity continues as long as possible. As modernisation of transport infrastructure is still struggling its way beyond the confines of Dhaka itself, this particular bus journey would include 4 ferry crossings in total, one of which was in dire need of repair – in fact, they were welding holes shut during our crossing – not a sight that fills a man with confidence I can tell you. 

Our Bangla friend, who had accompanied us on this trip, and who I shall refer to as the Fresh Prince (his name means ‘Fresh’ in Bangla) due to my habit of omitting real names in order to protect identities, had managed to convince our hotel owner that we were foreign diplomatic emissaries, thereby avoiding the ‘White-Man’ tax so often forced upon us. I suspect he had a feeling he may have been misled when, 20 minutes later, I emerged from the room in my socks, sandals, vest, hat, and dripping sun cream on the floor as I walked. He may have been tempted to charge us extra at that point but, having already pointed out to him the defective toilet, lights, beds, and lock (basically, nothing worked), I suppose he realised that the price we’d already paid was already sufficient. 

The beach itself was, in a word, perfect. With only 6 days now left of my stay in Bangladesh, this seaside experience was very much the final missing piece of the jigsaw, having already experienced city life, and village life. When I decided upon visiting this area of the World, it was this paradisiacal sensation of swimming in the sea, watching the sun set over the horizon as fishermen ply their trade, in the company of friends, that I had in mind. 

“How many Bangladeshis does it take to change a lightbulb?”….. ‘Privacy’ is an English word that I’m sure has no equal in the Bangla language. Certainly it is a concept that is missing from the psyche of the people. As we settled for an evening of playing cards, with Captain America (my American colleague, who I should now credit with being the source of much of the information I impart with in this Blog, along with Wikipedia and an occasional trustworthy source) in his boxers and vest, the entire cohort of hotel staff wander into the room, without knocking, in order to change the lightbulb. Once done, rather than leave, they decide to stand and stare at us playing until one of us is forced to shoo them out, barricading the door after them…..then remembering the lock wasn’t working either so they had another reason to gather around us again 10 minutes later. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, the beach at Kuakata is known for the fact that one can watch the sun both rise, and set, from the same spot. Cue the alarm waking us at 4:45am to make the effort. I hate early mornings! It may be that the early bird catches the worm, but the early worm gets eaten first. Miss USA (Captain America’s wife), a far more outgoing and social being than myself, befriended some fishermen the previous evening, and came away with an invite for all five of us to breakfast at one of their houses this morning, where we were fed freshly caught fish. Though I may have made a mention of this before, I’ll do so again. Eating in the company of a family here is amongst the strangest experiences. They won’t eat with you, nor will they join you at the table. Rather, they insist on standing behind you, and around you, re-filling your plate until they are satisfied that they have fed you. You don’t like something? Tough. You’re full, and don’t want any more? Tough. Every meal is a challenge, and one to perform whilst each member of the family takes out a camera and snaps away at every bite. Contrary to what you might think, none of that was written as a complaint: It’s actually rather enjoyable – it’s just very strange to me. 

Finding out that a trip to the Sundarbans would not be possible after all, we hired some motorbikes for the afternoon. Despite, initially, successfully haggling the price down to the low sum of £3 per hour, the price did increase slightly after they insisted on seeing us drive them before letting us zoom off. None of us having ever ridden one before, they demanded £4 per hour instead “in case of damages” – what a liberty, eh?! Just a few questions for us to ask (in addition to “how do these things work then?”): 

“Any helmets?”

“What are they?”

“Oh, erm, are we insured?”

“What’s that?”

“……err…..how about health and safety?”

…..nothing….. 

So, with no guidelines other than “try not to crash and die, because then you couldn’t pay for damages caused by the crash”, we rode towards the mangrove forest, on the Eastern side of the beach. Quickly realising that motorbikes are not ideal for weaving through forests of tree trunks with no helmets on, we headed instead to the West, as close to the Sundarbans as the coast would allow, finding a spot on the way for lunch of freshly caught crab and fish, big enough to be meaty, yet small enough to eat the entire thing, shell, guts, brains and all. My mind was cast back to a time I spent in Tokyo as a 16 year old. One particular Judo Teacher took me under his wing, his name was Uzawa-Sensei, and he was in his 80s at the time. Each evening, we would eat fried fish, but I would always leave the head, whereas he would eat the entire thing. Each evening, he would make fun of my squeamishness, and each evening I would continue to fail to eat the head. He’d be so proud of me now. 

I’ve had more than a few requests for photos recently so I’ll take this moment to address their absence. Firstly, I’m not much of a photographer. If something looks good in real life, I’ll find a way of losing its beauty in one click. Secondly, I prefer to enjoy the moment, in the moment, with my own eyes, and I’m reluctant to lose a second of the natural beauty by looking at it through a lens. Finally, even if the camera captures a scene in all its glory, it will always fail to contextualise that scene. A camera captures a scene, but it can never capture the ‘moment’….. Also, the others have been snapping away so I hope to steal their photos at some point instead. 

As with all great adventures, this one also came to an end, but not before the 24-hour journey back to Dhaka; not before the boat broke down in the middle of the river; nor before we experienced that momentary panic that one only understands if they’ve seen the film ‘Titanic’, and realise that one is not a main character and so is, in all likeliness, going to be the first to drown, along with all the other extras. Our arrival at the conclusion of the journey is marked by that unmistakeable waft of poisonous pollution that strikes the senses as the boat floats back into Dhaka, caused by many of the 4000+ brick kiln factories that operate. This stretch of river, I fear, is the jugular vein of the capital, simultaneously sustaining life in an economic sense, and bleeding the city to death in an ecological and environmental sense. I just sincerely hope that a cure is found before the situation becomes beyond repair.