Since early 2012, I had wanted to travel to Bangladesh. The primary reason was because even very well seasoned travelers within Asia who have been traveling consistently for as many as seven straight years had not stepped foot within Bangladesh boarders. Why?
What was keeping Bangladesh off the radar of general tourists and long-term travelers?
I had to find out what was behind this mystical land.
On March 12, I was scheduled on a Biman Air flight from Bangkok to Dhaka. While standing in line to check in my baggage, I noticed that the light skinned foreigner in front of me had watery liquid dripping from her luggage onto the floor directly underneath her baggage cart. When I pointed this out to her she responded, "Oh. It's frozen pork. You can't get that in Bangladesh." Then she added with a wink, "and I have two large bottles of vodka as well. Just trying to keep my husband happy," she laughed. We continued chatting in line and later while we waited to board the airplane. Once in flight, she invited me to join her empty row and we talked about our travels and adventures during the two and one-half hour flight.
Before we landed, Veronika handed me her address and phone number and I agreed to go over to her house in Dhaka before heading off to the American Club together. Veronika and her husband John have been living the past five years in Dhaka working as teachers. In fact, they have interestingly been living abroad for over fourteen years teaching in countries as diverse as Pakistan, the Gaza Strip, Moscow, and Germany.
We departed company at the airport and my driver began a two hour odessy to Hotel 71 near old Dhaka, an area that left me spellbound.
The traffic at night was like nothing I'd ever seen.
A mixture of cars, tuk-tuks, CNG's (a beetle shaped tuk-tuk that was completely encaged) and thousands and thousands of cycle rickshaws sharing an unlaned road with pedestrians who moved like floating walls between the rare spaces left where vehicles were not present. We barely moved outside of the airport. We crawled at a snail pace as beggars rapped on our windows. At times the glut of traffic would give way and we would quickly sway forward, only to reach an abrupt stop.
This routine continued for nearly two hours until we finally pulled up adjacent to the high rise, Hotel 71. For under $30 per night, I slept in a comfortable bed on the eighteenth floor overlooking Old Dhaka. The air-con room was equipped with cable tv, a hot water shower, and included an on site work out room in addition to a complete buffet breakfast with a mixture of Western and Bangla fare. For good measure, I was given a welcome fruit plate and Sprite, and the next morning an English language newspaper was stuffed under my door.
Even though I have been living in Asia for practically the past two years, I felt completely culture shocked when I stepped onto the streets of Dhaka that first morning. I felt out of place in my shorts and t-shirt. Everyone stared at me while I passed among the walls of people and streets that were so congested that they seemed impossible to navigate. I had to employ the "adopt a local" strategy to help me cross the streets safely. The blaring mosques celebrating the Koran added to the unique atmosphere of Dhaka.
When my wife and I visited Sri Lanka in 2010, we declared it "India light". However after only one day, I was already claiming Bangladesh to be "India heavy", meaning that Dhaka appeared to be similar to India in many attributes except there was even more people, more traffic, pollution, garbage, noise, all with a Muslim twist.
I hired a cycle rickshaw to take me to the BWTIC where I could purchase tickets on the Rocket, a steamboat that travels south toward the Sundarbans. It was aptly named the Rocket because it was the quickest vessel around back in the day but now it merely hovers over the water.
Once at the office, the manager immediately greeted me even though he was with other customers. He said, "Hello. Your country?" "America," I responded. Then he asked, "And how can I help you?" I stated, "I would like to purchase a ticket on the Rocket for this Saturday." He asked, "Which class?" I requested first class but he informed me that first class was sold out. I then said, "Okay. Second class then." He asked, "Would you like a bed or a cabin?" I responded, "Um....I....." Suddenly he blurted out, "Now you wait!"
He turned to help the couple that was already there when I arrived. After they departed, another group arrived while the manager completely ignored me. After a good ten minutes he said, "Write your name on this paper." I followed instructions and patiently waited while he worked with other clients, at times holding a different phone up to each ear as he barked out orders. I became spaced out thinking of other things when he handed me a ticket and requested a some of money.
Apparently I would not only be traveling second class, but I would be sharing the compartment with a Bangladeshi who I had never met during the 16 hour overnight journey. Before I departed the manager informed me, "Normally I do not do second class tickets but since you are a foreigner, I did it for you." I replied, "Thank you sir," with a bow, and then bowed out.
With a ticket in hand, I hailed down a CNG to take me to Veronika's house located in a zone designated for expats and upperclass Bangladeshis. Through the heinous traffic and polluted streets, the CNG would twist, stop, turn, and spin it's way among the lined streets of vehicles. An hour and a half later, I arrived at her spacious home. She proudly showed me around a house that included four bathrooms. Her husband John greeted me warmly at their home where we discussed our journeys and travel perspectives while we chomped away at horde revers over drinks.
We left to the American Club, a locale that had nothing at all to do with the Dhaka I had witnessed thus far. The club sported a bar area equipped with a full size pool table, a canopy where a barbecue grilled a variety of proteins while alcohol and western foods such as pizza and marble fudge cake were readily available.
After dining we played a few competitive rounds of pool with two American Bangladeshis and later returned to Veronika and John's home for a nightcap. The journey back to Hotel 71 even at night was lengthy and dreadful. The traffic was horrendous. We frequently sat in a long line of encrusted vehicles, a scene of unorganized chaos. After over an hour, I was surprised to see my hotel as I had unknowingly given up on ever seeing it again.
The following morning, Veronika showed up with her driver just shy of noon. She had never toured around Dhaka even, though she has lived in the city for almost five years. Our first stop was at the Sandarghat river port to take out a rowboat where ships depart all around the globe. Despite the vile stench, the boat ride was relaxing and refreshing as long as we remained seated under the umbrella to avoid the punishing sun. We headed east for about thirty minutes and then returned to the launching point. Even though we agreed to a price before hand and paid him the requested amount, the boatman still wanted more money; this was a constant theme across the country.
We strolled west along the waterfront to the Pink Palace, a nicely preserved former house of royalty filled with artifacts from the family heirlooms. The final stop of the day was at Lalbagh Fort, an extremely poor version of the Taj Mahal. Despite it shortcomings compared to the most impressively constructed building in the world, the grounds were well maintained and the local people were extremely friendly. They would ask, "Are you happy here in this historical site?" When I nodded, they would say, "We are so happy!"
We only visited a couple of sites because traffic led to extreme delays that ate away at the hours of our day.
By the time we reached Veronika's house, it was already almost 6:00pm and we had plans at the Dutch Club. Once there, bottles of wine flowed freely over western music. We decided to go bowling at the Jumana Future Center, allegedly the largest mall in all of Southeast Asia. When we arrived at 8:00pm, we were informed that the mall was closing and that it was not possible to bowl.
So once again we sat in traffic as we returned to John and Veronika's home. Once there, we played a variety of card games that including everything from poker to blackjack to Shithead. We said our goodbyes as the next evening I would depart on the Rocket to Hularhat in southern Bangladesh, hopefully far from the hustle and bustle of Dhaka.
Since I had most of the afternoon to kill before embarked the Rocket, I decided to amble about Old Dhaka. The congested streets gave way to alleyways and mazes of passageways that were lined with products ranging from shoes and clothing to books, jewelry, and craftsmen who worked at a basic trade such as flip flop repair.
At some point I was pursued by three beggars, two small children and a large girl. I waved them off but their persistence was dumbfounding. I eventually gave up and sat in a chair off a main street situated up a few stairs. They stood there begging me for a pathetic amount of money, equivalent to a couple of cents each. I sat and calmly waited for them to leave. They remained with their hands out and were so demanding that a police officer came by and shooed them away with a long stick. They crossed the street but eyed me closely. As soon as I stood up, I was again pursued by the trio. They ran in front of me to block my passage down the streets. I swerved around them but they would run ahead of me and initiate their strategy once again. At some point the two little kids flitted off but the larger girl followed me relentlessly. At some point I passed by her with a bump. She responded by pushing me hard and being of balance, not expecting such an act of aggression, I nearly fell to the ground.
I was surprised but viewed the act as bad karma for someone I had unfortunately pushed not long ago.
I happily entered the safety and peace of Hotel 71, my place of refuge until I left to Sandarghat at 4:00pm via cycle rickshaw to board the Rocket, departing at 6:30pm that evening. I enjoyed a chow mein lunch on the 19th floor and then awaited 4:00pm. While waiting patiently in the lobby, a member of the hotel staff informed me that another foreigner, the man in the Business Center, was also departing on the Rocket that evening. I struck up a conversation with the French speaking, Gabriel, who was off on the same boat but in first class with his own private cabin. I was envious but wondered who would be my flat mate for the night.
At 4:00pm sharp, we hired cycle rickshaws to Sandarghat and boarded the old steamship, the Rocket. A crew member showed me to my quarters, two thin beds with a fan above each bunk with a small wall mounted table between the beds. The sheets were reasonably clean.
Second class didn't seem so bad after all. After people and boat watching for nearly two and one half hours, as the sun set over the river, we departed slowly toward Hularhat. The journey during this evening was not scenic as I could only make out vague shapes that we passed in the wide river as darkness began to descend upon us. I brought dinner with me, pastries from Hotel 71 that I consumed at random before bedtime. It turned out that Gabriel was also in second class, and it appeared that we both had our own cabins. A friendly well-spoken Bangladeshi chatted with us in English about his job in customs, his family, and favorite American action movies. I crashed out early that night but was abruptly awoken when we arrived to the port where my roommate for the night joined me. I tried to go back to sleep but he received a phone call and rudely chatted away. I politely asked him if he could get off the phone or go outside since I was sleeping. He said, "okay, okay," and he soon got off the phone. He had already disembarked before I awoke around 8:00am.
The scenery had dramatically altered from congested Dhaka streets, to relaxing agricultural villages. The poverty in this area was tangible. Locals bathed in the river while passengers embarked and disembarked the steamship. I was informed by the crew that I would get off in four stops, about two hours time. I snapped photos and took in the natural ambience as we drifted toward Halurhat village.
Once in Halurhat, Gabriel and I decided to share a tuk-tuk to the bus station and then take a bus to Bagerhat to view the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Shaik Gumbad Mosque, the most important of its type in the country. We paid the inflated foreigner entry fee off 200ts. ($2.50) and entered the main mosque that is topped with some seventy domes. As we strolled leisurely checking out the fine inner archways below the domed ceiling, a gentleman ushered us out, stating that shorts were not proper attire to enter the holy inner grounds and that we needed to go outside. We exited the mosque and made our way around the grounds. A lake sat adjacent to the mosque and a few locals were setting up for an event. Palms and other large green trees lined the inner walled grounds of the site that was constructed before Columbus landed in the West.
After our tuk-tuk dropped us off back at Bagarhat's bus station, I left Gabriel to travel solo onward to Mongla, the town where independent day visits to the Sundarbans was possible. I checked into the Pashur Hotel at around 5:00pmin the evening and immediately arranged a full day tour departing the following morning at 7:00am. The day trip would visit Harbaria and Karamjal. The price was steep but I came a long distance to try and view the elusive Bengali tiger in its natural habitat. I had dinner at the hotel restaurant, the best place to eat and lodge in all of Mongla, yet the prices were quite reasonable, $25 for the room and $5 for a full meal.
In the morning I picked up my egg fried rice breakfast and lunch combo and departed with my guide Mr. Sobhan and the boat driver Mr. Sabur. We boated in the high tide for over three hours heading toward Harbaria.
En route we saw a few river dolphins playing and jumping in the water while kingfishers flitted from tree to tree along the river's coast. At about 11:00am we checked into Harbaria's outpost. When the guards heard I was an American, a long bearded middle aged man appeared and greeted me in perfect English. He was Bangladedhi but has lived for many years in New York City working as a cab driver.
An armed guard led us toward the jungle on a raised platform. A family of monkeys played adjacent to the outpost. We descended the platform and walked along a path where the gunman pointed out two tiger pawprints, likely left a couple of days ago. Just to give you an idea of the chance you have to spot a Bengali tiger, when I asked the guide and boatman who have a combined 40+ years of working experience in the Sundarbans, each of them has only seen a tiger only once! We climbed back upon yet another platform and took a brief break under a canopy reached via a wooden bridge but we were told we would have to leave promptly because an important dignitary was coming and his entourage would have the place all to themselves.
When we returned to the boat, the guide indicated that we would head to the second spot. When I asked why we came all this way and not head up the channel, he blurted something out to the boatman who turned the vessel up channel and we passed among beautiful scenery but no animals were to be seen. We eventually turned about and returned toward Mongla.
Our second stop of the day was at Karamjal, a disappointing crowded spot that was more of a breeding zoo than a place to view animals in their natural habitat. My guide pointed out a massive bee hive and we passed baby caged crocodiles and white spotted deer in a spacious enclosure. Larger crocodiles were maintained in two large ponds on site. The crowds seemed more interested in posing for photos with me than taking note of the animals.
As we neared Mongla, my guide pointed out a village that was in the business of booze and prostitution. I declined any interest but curiously peered within this shantytown that supposedly was the place to procure alcohol and women in the Mongla vicinity, most frequented by sailors coming into port on a weekly basis. Back in Mongla, I attempted to chat with the curious locals but the language barrier was an issue in any effective communication. After dinner with nothing much to do, I fell asleep to get an early start on my journey northbound the following morning.
By 8:00am I had exercised, showered, dressed, and finished an egg and roti breakfast. By 8:15am I was aboard a bus to Kulna where I would change buses and head to Rajshahi, expecting to arrive by roughly 3:00pm. How wrong would my calculation prove to be.
In Bangladesh, connecting transport is typically not set up well at all; in fact it is generally very inconvenient and not at all intuitive.
For example, after I descended the bus at the Kunla terminal, in order to arrive at the bus station to head north, I had to navigate the station down to the river, board a boat, cross the river, climb a hill, and board another bus to take us to a zone where bus tickets were sold. I would have struggled figuring this out by myself but I was adopted by Safi, a well spoken youngster who was all too happy to help me, even paying for the small fares on the boat transfer and brief bus ride.
Even once we reached the bus vendor area, it was noted that the New Market area would be better suited to where I was heading in the north. Therefore, we once again boarded another bus to the New Market area of Kulna. They did have a direct bus to my destination, Rajshahi, but I was informed via translation that the bus would likely arrive at least an hour late, probably more, and it was suggested that I take the train. Off we went to the train station that had 1st class seats available to my destination but it was to depart at 2:45, five hours from the time that we arrived at the railway station. Safi headed off to the university having completed his good deed of the day but rather than sitting around the train terminal, I hired a tuk-tuk to whisk me away to the Western Hotel, the most posh establishment with one of the best restaurants in Kulna.
I entered a relatively plush world with well dressed waiters, air-con, wi-fi, and quality food. Over tea and both Bangladesh and Indian food, I surfed the internet, checking my email and other pertinent items like catching up with my Words With Friends crowd. Somehow I quickly killed a few hours and headed on a cycle rickshaw back to the train terminal. The train only departed fifteen minutes late but it was on the platform that I learned the bad news, the journey would take well over seven hours and I wouldn't be in Rajshahi until after 10:00pm at night. I had a hotel selected in mind with no reservation and the highly recommended Aristocrat restaurant located across the street would already be closed. I decided to risk it and ordered train food, an egg and bread concoction served with two vegetable fried patties.
When the train finally pulled into the railway station at almost 10:30pm, I was exhausted and took the first tuk-tuk who eyed me to the Hotel Nice, located in Rajshahi's bustling university town city center. Rooms were available ranging from 1,000-4,000 taka, but between the cheaper and more expensive air-con rooms, I preferred the fan room with plusher pillows and a soft mattress under a powerful ceiling fan. After a shower to remove the train journey dust, I slept fitfully until the early morning.
Hotel Nice has a tasty complimentary breakfast that included, roti, fried egg, and a potato masala dish along with milk tea. After getting powered up, I boarded a tuk-tuk to the bus station; once their, the driver claimed that none of the busses went to the delightful village, Puthia, but he would drop me further up the road at a junction where busses went onward to my desired destination.
Even before I arrived, I became excited about viewing the historical temples that a friendly Bangladeshi showed me in a photo album that he had pieced together. He accompanied me down the 500 meter road leading into the historical zone. Once there, I was greeted by the caretaker of the temples; Mr. Bishwana had all of the keys to the locked gates across the town and spoke good enough English to humor me while we ambled through the quaint village.
Perhaps the most striking temple is the Shiva Temple, constructed in 1823. The imposing temple sits perched above the village entrance, sublime reflections of itself gleam in the adjacent large pond. This Hindu temple houses a massive black stone phallic work of art that represents Shiva, a location where Hindus make puja in the early morning. The village also houses the Puthia Palace, a multi-columned structure built in 1895 as well as Don Mondir, a triangular shaped structure built in 1785.
Some visitors prefer the Govinda Temple over all the others, located within the palaces inner courtyard. Fine terracotta images line the temple walls, depicting love scenes from Hindu epics. Other nearby temples such as Anika and Gopala are also worthwhile visits while in the village. A friendly market vends produce, fruit, milk, and a few other essentials near the Govinda exit heading back toward the Shiva Temple near the village threshold.
A half an hour later I was back in Rajshahi sampling my favorite Bangladesh dish at Chilis, chicken boonda accompanied with rice and vegetables and cucumber. This savory dish has been a staple of mine since first trying it the second day in Dhaka. Rajshahi is definitely still a Bangladeshi city in character but it is a worlds away less chaotic than the streets of Dhaka. People everywhere on the streets, whether strolling down the 500m road leaving Puthia or on the main avenues of Rajshahi, I was regularly greeted by friendly faces who were ligitimately curious about me and where I'm from and hoped I think well of their country.
When it cooled off in the evening, I walked to to the Patma river, peering out at distant India across the boarder, friendly faces stared curiously at me. I tried to ignore the attention and focus on India, photo ops, and people watch on my own terms.
A vendor greeted me and offered a free sample of a food concoction that looked tasty but I was stuffed after my lunch at Chilis. He spoke decent English and told me how he met his wife, a Pakistani by descent, during the war of liberation that began in 1969 and resulted in an independent Bangladesh in 1971. I promised to stop by later but wanted to continue down the river road towards a marsh area that I later learned is completely submerged during the wet season.
A group of university students approached me. Munna and his colleague, Nazim, both studied law at the local university. They both spoke good English, especially Munna, who moonlighted as an English teacher to make extra cash when not studying law. They both urged me to visit the university the next day and they assured me I would enjoy myself and that the trip would be well worth my time. I agreed to email Nazim the next morning to fix a time of my visit since he lived in the dorm on campus and could reach the main gate within a few minute walk. We parted company when we reached the vendor who I had promised to visit upon my return from the marsh. However he was very busy preparing dishes so I wished him well and had dinner at Chilis, this time sampling the less favorable Chicken Biriani dish.
True to his word, Nazim greeted me just as I stepped off the tuk-tuk at the university main gate the following morning. He mentioned that Munna had to leave Rajshahi and would not be joining us. Like in Nepal, Bangladesh has unpredictable strikes. When I arrived to meet Nazim at Rajshahi University, he informed me that few students were on campus because the strike limits bus transport. I wondered if I too would have difficulty later that morning to find a bus heading to my next destination, Bogra.
Nazim happily showed me where a martyr was buried among a large flowerbed and pointed to statues that related to the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. We then wandered into a depressing on campus museum that depicted the maimed and dead as a result of the countries struggle for independence from Pakistan. He proudly had me link up to the main library wifi and our journey was completed with tea and a snack in a shaded courtyard. Rajshahi University wasn't up to the standards of western universities but the campus has its charms, including a massive tree lined street that Nazim claimed was the best street on any campus in the country.
I returned to my hotel, checked out, and hailed a cycle rickshaw. Somehow even in local tongue I understood that no buses were running on this day. I entered the hotel and reconfirmed the fact that I was stranded for yet another day in Rajshahi.
I tried hard to kill time. I surfed the internet. I went to a museum that ended up being closed Thursdays. Eventually the day gave way to the evening and I once again strolled down to the Patma river with India further inland. I once again chatted with the vendor who convinced me to try fushka, a tasty India snack with a thin fried pastry filled with a chickpea masala topped with onions, cucumbers and a few sauces and spices. He seemed content with his simple life. I was envious. He was happy with his wife of 35 years and they led a relaxing lifestyle working as a team. Both of them had responsibilities that in unison fulfilled their small business obligations. I asked Tos if it was expensive to cross the river.
At only a third of a dollar, I crossed with a group of locals to the opposite side of the Patma river where Rajshahi could be viewed from a distance. The boatman seemed to use me as bait, yelling out something in Bangla with the only word I could decipher was Americani. Once disembarked on the opposite side, we walked the powdery sanded bank peering out toward India or the setting sun.
At night I dined my last meal at Chilis and called it an early night. In the morning with the strike officially over, I packed my bags and was whisked away by a cycle rickshaw to the further bus station where buses headed to Bogra. I surprised the cyclist with double the amount he requested, feeling strangely generous on this fine morning.
Almost immediately a bus was departing for Bogra. I took a window seat and a young man sat adjacent to me in the aisle portion of our row. He eagerly introduced himself as Rashim, stating, "I really like to meet foreigners. They are interesting to talk to." He is from Natore but lives most of the week in Rajshahi because he studies information science at the local university like many other Bangladeshi youngsters that have approached me over the past few days.
I arrived in Bogra around noon.
The town appeared devoid of character. Two tuk-tuk drivers had a hard time determining the location of my selected guesthouse, Red Chilis, also with the best restaurant in town, according to my trusty guidebook loaded onto both my iPhone and iPad. The driver eventually found the place after asking around. The guesthouse was a reasonable value and the food was decent enough. Wifi was not available during lunch but they claimed it would be functional by the evening.
The guesthouse manager wrote down directions precisely how I could reach the Mahasthangarh, an ancient structure that at the time of my visit was reduced to just that, the skeletons of a structure long gone. Even though the ruins were not impressive, the ambience was nice enough among a natural setting that included rice paddies, vegetable crops and a low lying wall that marks the outer area of the once potentially impressive site. Bangladeshis were in good spirits. The museum housed artifacts from as early as the 3rd century B.C. Many statues of Vishnu were on display. Following the wall footpath, my new local companion RK Manon and I walked the wall, entered a mosque, passed through villages with goats and crying babies and wound down to a bazaar area with vendors selling foodstuffs and a variety of basic products.
RK suggested that we go somewhere but I didn't understand what he referred to so I gave up and simply joined him in a tuk-tuk to Gokul Medh, a structure completed as recently as 1936 but it appeared to be from a similar period as Mahasthangarh, but the structure was in tact. We climbed atop the structure to the acme and took in view of rice fields and the general countryside. To me this was the more impressive of the two sites and I never recalled reading about it anywhere. We returned together to my guesthouse, RK simply wanted to make sure I got home safely. After dinner at the guesthouse and a quiet Friday night, I crashed thinking about tomorrow's excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage Site, Paharpur, near the town of Jaipurhat.
You know you've reached a destination that sees few tourists when a local approaches me, a white Anglo of European descent, and asks if I'm from Japan.
I was humored by this question after a lengthy one way three hour trip from Bogra to Paharpur via Jaipurhat.
An electronic rickshaw took me to the actual archeological site for a mere 20 taka or 25 cents. The site was remote and somewhat imposing as we approached from a distance. Being only one of two UNESCO World Heritage sites in the country, I had high expectations despite the other heritage site in Bagerhat being somewhat of a let down.
Parharpur is important in that it is the largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas.
According to studies, the mound like apex of the structure was formed naturally, high winds actually shaping the hill. Areas surrounding the main structure are where monks used to meditate. The size and influences from Hindu, Jain and Buddhism make this monastery particularly unique and many artifacts from the varied religions can be viewed in the I site museum.
With a meager entry fee of 200 taka for foreigners (under $3), it's hard to complain about visiting the site except that round trip travel can consume up to 6-7 hours, in my opinion, too lengthy to make a trip only out to this location worthwhile. It was hard to complain though as a group of about twenty 10-11 year old students enjoyed practicing English with me and we climbed around the main temple in unison.
Being that there are many other far more impressive sites in Asia, I would consider skipping Parharpur unless you are combining it with a visit to other ruins located further north toward Rangpur. Even with Bangladeshi boarders, I far preferred Puthia's temples and they were located less than a half an hour from Rajshahi town.
After eating a solid buffet breakfast and paying my hotel bill at Red Chilis, I hired a cycle rickshaw to the bus terminal and hesitantly boarded a bus to Dhaka. I hoped to arrive in a bus station that had connections that afternoon directly to Srimangal, the final destination of my two weeks venturing around Bangladesh. The gentlemen who sat next to me on the bus rubbed me the wrong way. For example, unlike most Bangladeshi people, he was unfriendly, didn't seem to desire to speak with me, and he even reached over to shut my window that was only ajar, grazing the side of my head in the process. Despite his intricacies, he helped me out in the end as he knew of a bus station outside of Dhaka that had direct connections to Srimangal, permitting me to avoid traffic delays within the city capital.
The bus money taker guy handed me a piece of paper with English writing indicating for me to get off the bus, walk towards a police station with a nearby ticket office that had seats for Srimangal. The only problem was that when I arrived it was only 1:00 and the bus to Srimangal departed at 3:45. A soft eyed young guy greeted me amiably and informed me he was traveling to Sylhet, his home town. It took me a while to comprehend in his solid yet limited English that he would leave in ten minutes.
I knew that Sylhet was near my destination so I approached the ticket counter and pressed them for more information as I looked at a Bangladesh map on my iPhone. I asked, "Can I take the Sylhet bus until Sha-Ista Ganj and then change buses to Srimangal." They looked at each other and then back at me and finally concurred that it was possible, even quite easy. I purchased a ticket to Sha-Ista Ganj and within a few minutes both I and Nayem, the soft eyed guy who had unintentionally helped me shave hours off my travel day, boarded a bus northbound.
Nayem conversed with me often during the three hour journey northeast. At some point mentioned, "I'm sorry. I am in an off mood." I thought that perhaps I had not heard him correctly but then pressed, "why the off mood?" He responded, "yesterday when I was visiting my sister in Dhaka, I got a call from my girlfriend of five years. She wants to break up with me." When I asked why, he simply shrugged his shoulders as if he didn't have a clue why his girlfriend had had a change of heart. I turned to him and said, "My wife that I have been with for over seven years left me six weeks ago while we were traveling in Thailand." When he asked me why she left, I too shrugged my shoulders, not wanted to explain the ugly argument that we had in Chiang Rai that became aggressive and distasteful for many reasons. Nayem then showed me photos of his girlfriend and then his nuclear family. He said, "This is my father. But he isn't here now." Then he looked and motioned toward the sky. I asked, "How old was your father when he passed?" I then looked at the sky helping him understand my question. He said, "64." I looked at him incredulously. Then I said, "My father too. He died at age 64 along with my mother. Also age 64." Before we departed, I promised to pray for him and his girlfriend to work things out and he promised to do the same for me as well.
Once in Sha-ista Ganj, I was adopted by yet another local who insisted on paying my fare to Srimangal. He worked in marketing, promoting smoking of a top Bangladeshi tobacco manufacturer whose name alludes me. Once in town an hour later, he helped me rent a bicycle so I could ride amidst the tea plantations toward my hotel, the Hermitage, located five kilometers outside of the dreary town.
Since I couldn't find anywhere to eat that night as the village where I stayed was dead, the manager made me dinner that night. And before I went to sleep, as promised, I prayed for Nayem and his girlfriend to work things out and hoped they would have a content life together.
My accommodation in Srimangal, the Hermitage Hotel, was located about 5 kilometers out of town situated along a pleasant flowing river that abutted a local village. The first morning after breakfast I biked through small villages and rice paddies to the Zareem Tea Factory; however the menacing sign posted that read no visitors were permitted without checking in with management led me to turn around and head a few kilometers to the Lowacherna National Park. En route children bathed me with fervent "hellos" and "what is your country" type questions. The national park had nice trails but perhaps due to my inexperience in spotting wildlife, saw no animals, and after about two hours of roaming the forest, rain clouds filled the sky luminously.
During the heavy downpour Bangladeshi youth literally sat in the main road enjoying the natural bath.
When the rain abated, I rode into town. The center was busy and noisy relative to the outskirts so I once again turned around and biked back to the Hermitage Hotel, passing the Finlay Tea Estate, the natural setting, and went into relaxation mode. I biked some rural areas that evening once again enjoying the chiming voices of children greeting me while I passed through small villages.
My dinner in the village cost me about half a dollar and the waiter refused my ten percent tip on basically nothing. It wasn't until the next day that they mentioned they forgot to charge me for water so the bill wasn't as cheap as I had originally thought. Heavy rain fell that night. The river ran loudly as I slept fitfully that night.
My guide Eusuf picked me up at the HerinGe at 9:00am and we took a CNG to Banugas and then transferred to Patrocola to walk two kilometers to a Garo tribal village. En route we spotted kingfishers, chestnut herded bee-eaters as well as spotted doves and cucus. We visited the home of a bamboo craftsman who fabricated wall mats. Eusuf believed Bangla city life expectancy to reach 55-60 years of age while villagers such as the Garo would likely live ten to fifteen years longer. We visited a shy school of varied aged children who were surprisingly studying in English.
After they sang a song to us, we responded by dinging a song that I parroted as we walked along the fields:
Rim chim arei. Sound of rain
Bolsa a te. Rainy season
Bisate ba lo la gay people dancing
Gai tee ba lo la gay And singing in the rain
We visited a few mud walled Garo homes, a tribe that migrated from Tibet over 1,500 years ago, first arrived in the Indian state of Assam, and then continuing south into Bangladesh. After our visit, we hired a CNG (not caged like in Dhaka) to Madubpur Lake. We ascended a hill for fine views before winding back toward the shoreline that wound back to the entrance. Eusuf had tea and chips while I energized with Pepsi and dried dal packets.
As we walked to find yet another CNG, we passed a wedding gate that was being assembled for a three day Hindu ceremony. Shiva's wife, Durga was prominent among the straw and mud statues.
It was around this time that Eusuf stated, "My heart hurts. I have not heard from my Japanese girlfriend in six weeks. I was her guide for twenty days in Bangladesh. She wrote to me and called from India often. When she returned to Japan she called a few times and then stopped. I don't know what happened." I asked if they had an argument. "Not at all," he said. "Everything was fine and then she stopped writing. I haven't heard from her in a long time. I sing songs to take my mind off her. She said she will come back in August" (five months from now). The six week period was similar in time to when my wife left me but I didn't want to get into it with him. He mentioned his girlfriend d ads in that evening. I said, "Look. There is nothing you can do about it if she won't write back." I knew this because my wife rarely wrote back to my emails and when she did she mainly wrote negative things about my past behaviors. Who knows why someone refuses to write back? I CNG's GED the subject by recording Eusuf on my iPhone to remember the song he sang on the way to the Garo village. I planned on making a version of it partially in English with flamenco style guitar playing.
As I waited for my 8:00pm dinner to be prepared, I couldn't help but notice that I kept meeting guys that had relationship problems. Does one pained heart invite the masses?
My last day in Srimangal was also a tour day. The guide who helped me find the bike shop when I arrived in Srimangal led my 9:00am departure to Rajghat Lake, an isolated location among fantastic pie apple plantations situated about 45 minutes outside of Srimangal town. My guide Lutin mentioned that the pineapples were sweet and I agreed. We discussed why different religions had sects that didn't necessarily agree with one another. I attributed the differing sects due to varied beliefs within each religion. Lutin stated, "Hindu gods came to bring peace on Earth, hundreds of gods with different names."
At some point during our hike among the pineapple plantation Lutin said, "You are leaving our land. You are now standing in India." I looked incredulously at him. He pointed at a small concrete pillar on the ground that had IND inscribed upon its surface.
As we headed back towards Srimangal, I noticed many Bangladeshi flags were prominent on this day, the 26th of March. Lutin stated, "Today is our Independence Day, from Pakistan in 1971." He added, "The green part of the flag represents the green nature in our country while the inner red circle represents the bloodshed that we underwent to attain our independence." A mother and a baby entered our CNG. The baby had a dark spot covered with white on the left side of her small forehead. Lutin explained, "It wards off evil. She is very little and needs protection." We briefly stopped at the Nilkantha Tea Cabin, famous for its seven layered tea. Since my stomach ached on this day, I passed the opportunity to sample the multihued beverage.
Once back in town, we stopped at the local city corporation where school children placed flowers on a martyrs memorial, commemorating their countries independence. The children were all to happy to see me, the white faced foreigner. At least thirty children shook my hand, and that was me attempting to avoid them and enter the CNG to depart to yet another local village to visit the Kashia tribe.
Unlike the Gora people, the Kashia were not friendly at all. I felt like we were unwanted intruders. Situated only 15 kilometers outside of Srimangal, the Kashia village subsists completely on growing, packing, and selling bettle nut leaf. Lutin informed me that the typical family earns in the neighborhood of $1,500usd per month, an excellent wage considering the cost of living. It seemed that every household was busy packing bettle nut leaf while we passed through the uninterested village. Lutin mentioned that the Kashia, one of five local tribes, was the wealthiest whereas the Monipuri were better educated, and the remaining three tribes were poor. The tribes don't even own their own land as they lease for 99 years and must work with bettle nut leaf or tea in order to eke out a living and remain within the village.
We had lunch back in Srimangal at the hippest place in town, Kutum Bari where I sampled chicken curry, thick dal and steamed rice. The food was tasty but I had sad chicken, a term I coined in Bangladesh for chicken that was quality but so little meat was on the bones that at times I felt sad for the skinny chicken that was killed in order to nourish my body with protein.
We then took yet another CNG to Tripura Village, a friendly locale that was visibly poor with dirt roads, mud and straw homes, with a variety of animals running loose including goats, pigs, and chickens. The village women specialize in weaving scarves, blankets, pasra (saris) and napkins by hand.
The final village we visited was the Monipuri tribe, supposedly the most educated of the tribes. The first house we visited was friendly but all the females were both dressed and made up to perform dance at another nearby village. The father of the family sat perched in he front of his home, shirtless, sporting a webbed string that was tied around his bicep, with six metallic filled cylinder shaped objects that were prescribed by the village doctor to guard against illness. The man of the house also proclaimed that the jewelry protected him against snake attacks. Another home had a massive weaving loom in the patio. The Monipuri seemed laid back and open-hearted. One lady looked kindly at me and said something in her local tongue. Lutin translated stating, "She asked if you were related to the other white person that I brought here once. I said he was from the UK and you are from the USA so you went related at all." A really cute interaction to a busy day.
Returning to Dhaka was not a homecoming at all.
All I could think of was that this could be the least livable city that I've ever visited. That said, I hired a cycle rickshaw to take me sightseeing during the last few hours of daylight that were available. We toured a few sights such as a church, and a Hindu bazaar, but mainly we sat in traffic. It seemed that death was everywhere. The graves at the church, the memorial for martyr's fallen during liberation, and hospitals crowded with poor souls trapped in the polluted and overcrowded city.
I was ready to leave but content I came.
Bangladesh is not for honeymooners or those seeking a good party.
Bangladesh is for adventurous travelers who want to see a unique place and a way of life that is unlike anywhere else I've ever visited.
There are archeological sites to be seen as well as natural beauty, but by far what I will always remember about Bangladesh is the friendly and curiously welcoming people who will warmly greet you and even adopt and help you during your stay in their homeland.