11. Apr, 2015

Living

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.