Bangladesh

The Curious Case Of Bangladeshis

It’s been a few weeks since I left Bangladesh for less intense pastures, and it’s given me time to reflect on what the country was like for me. Bangladesh is a young nation, still finding her feet after the messy breakup of her parents, India and Pakistan. She isn’t really used to alien travellers, but can be an unforgettable safari for anyone brave or stupid enough to go there, a few things to know about Bangladesh…

Its currency is the Taka, and there’s roughly 120 of them to one pound. A room of an acceptable standard will set you back 600Tk, a meal in a local restaurant 150-200Tk, a rickshaw ride 10Tk per kilometre and a pineapple 5Tk, so it’s cheap. The word ‘taka’ translates to ‘money’, the Bank of Bangladesh done well to come up with that one…

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‘Money’

The nation’s flag features a red disc on a green background. It represents the sun rising over the lush green land of Bengal, and also the blood spilt during the war of independence. I’m not sure what the name of this flag is, probably just ‘flag’ seen as the currency is called ‘money’.

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‘Flag’

The national language of Bangladesh is Bengali. A few people speak English but not many everyday signs, labels and menus will have English writing, so it is helpful to at least learn the Bengali numbers 1-10, then you can understand the price of things to avoid being ripped off. I was too preoccupied to learn any local lingo, except for one word – cockroach. This word came in very handy when scoping potential hotel rooms. For example, “No telapoka? Ok I’ll take it” or “Telapoka, telapoka” (whilst pretending to spray an aerosol can).

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Undoubtedly the highlight of my time in Bangladesh has to be the people. Everywhere you go the locals are always at hand to help you out with anything, and from my experience I think the Bangladeshis are possibly the most hospitable and warm people that I’ve ever met, they really make a mockery out of us miserable westerners. However, it’s the extreme over-inquisitive nature of most of the people that can also become a lowlight during a visit to Bangladesh…

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Staring is not uncommon when travelling to some remote parts of Asia that see less tourists, and Bangladesh is famous for it, but I had no idea it could be so bad. When we crossed the border at Akhaura we sat in the corner of the waiting room, it didn’t take long for a crowd of 40+ people to surround us just to stand and stare, old men were pushing children out of the way to get a glimpse of the white man. Then came the camera phones flashing in our faces followed by the queue of people lining up to shake my hand to hear some words of wisdom (or to practice their English). Feeling like the Dalai Lama I embraced the moment and accepted it for what it was, the crowd eventually died down and I hoped it was a one off, seen as we were passing through nothing but a quiet border town – it wasn’t.

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Needless to say, the whole staring thing got very tiresome very quickly. It became impossible to stand still anywhere without being mobbed, the people stand so close it becomes uncomfortable and really is an invasion of personal space. If you raise your voice or get angry it only makes the masses move closer and stare harder. Here’s what happened to us whilst trying to get into a rickshaw in Dhaka…
Staring Mob Video and Getting in a rickshaw video

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The problems persist when you’re on the move, walking down the street can drive you crazy when all you can hear is the constant sound of people shouting in your direction “HOW ARE YOU!? YOUR COUNTRY!?” These are the two most common questions that you’re likely to be asked hundreds of times a day. Mittens will reach out to touch your skin and move in for a handshake, you will always be videoed and photographed no matter what, you will always be the centre of attention everywhere…

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There’s a whitey in there somewhere

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Just buying some fruit…

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At least they’re not camera shy

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Most of the time the looks are just vacant

So why exactly are the people the way they are with foreigners? Surely they’ve seen them on TV and in films? Is it really necessary to get so close and analyse your every move? Do they not know that it’s rude to stare? These are all the questions I asked whenever I spoke to someone with decent English and I always got the same answer “Bangladeshis are very curious people.” Curious? Curious about what exactly? Curious about the way I eat? The way we dress? Our skin? Our hair? The way we speak? My tattoos? The way I file my nails with a Swiss army knife? The list goes on but the people’s complete admiration towards foreigners will always remain a mystery to me.

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Sometimes a look of anger…

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Sometimes a look of fear…

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They look when driving a rickshaw…

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And even when cleaning an ear!

Thankfully we were able to put up with the constant barrage of staring, handshaking, pointless questions and feeling like a celebrity for long enough to scratch the surface of Bangladesh, the land of 140 million stares! Don’t worry guys I know you mean no harm. Next year Bangladesh will host the cricket 20/20 world cup, so maybe the thousands of foreigners that flock here will be enough for the locals to look at and finally kill their curiosity. Or maybe not…

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The many stares of Bangladesh

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DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA…

…DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA… I normally like to mention the etymology of places that I visit, but in this case I’m not really sure where the capital of Bangladesh gets its name from, but really wouldn’t be surprised if it was simply after the constant cacophony that spits, sputters and screams out of this insane city…DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA DHAKA…

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Dhaka’s sights are few and far between, the main attraction is simply being there just to take in what I can safely say is the most chaotic city I’ve ever visited. I knew this within minutes of getting off the bus at the main station and into a CNG (auto rickshaw). The thrill ride to the hotel was like being picked up and placed into a real life game of Mario Kart, we seemed to weave in and out of traffic whilst avoiding the other vehicles and giant turtle shells, as the driver tipped the CNG onto two wheels in the same manner in which Donkey Kong would turn a corner. When we arrived at the hotel, there was no mushroom cup to be had, just a lung full of smog and nerves shattered into a million pieces…

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Cripples begging on the road

Shankharia bazar aka Hindu Street, was an extremely crowded but interesting part of the city to walk down. Gravestone makers are the friendly neighbours of many barber shops and if you’re lucky, you may come face to face with a posse of eunuchs – the hymapherides of South Asia. It’s also the only place in Bangladesh I was able to buy hot food through the day. For all it’s an experience being in Bangladesh during Ramadan, one can’t live on Mr Twist tomato flavoured crisps and deep fried chillies…

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Eunuch army

Continue to walk south of the sardine packed streets and you eventually reach Sadarghat, the beating heart of Dhaka where all the goods are shipped in and out of the city. After a walk around where we witnessed a fight over some fruit and were followed by literally dozens of people, you arrive at the boatman terminal. Sadarghat was documented by the BBC in their TV show ‘the hardest place to be a ferryman’, here the aging men chauffeur passengers back and forth across the Buriganga river at a price of 5 taka (2 pence) per ticket, avoiding the hundreds of triple decker liners that sail in and out everyday. Many of the boat hands flock to Dhaka to do this as the money is apparently a lot better than what they can make in their villages, some of the men work well into their 80’s, a long hard life away from your loved ones. I asked at the ticket counter “Is this really the hardest place in the world to be a ferryman?”, to which I got the answer I was expecting – “Five taka”…

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Man doing a woman’s job

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They see a camera and they all want snapped

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Ear cleaning by the ghat

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The hardest ferryman – proper grafter

It’s difficult even just to walk around the streets of Dhaka, you need to constantly be alert to avoid the many obstacles storming your way. Hussaini Dalan is one of the oldest mosques in the city and for me offered a much needed respite from the crazy streets…

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Dhaka is the most populated city in Bangladesh by a long shot, they say that by 2025 it will have a population of over 27 million people. The city is forever growing like a gluttonous slob that will eventually burst at the seams, if it hasn’t already. The overwhelming amount of people is apparent when riding into Dhaka via train, houses made from rubbish are within touching distance of the railway line, the poorest of the poor living under abandoned carriages, smacked up to the eye balls with no hope and no future, the exact thing they came here looking for, sadly.

Dhaka was once a magnificent city under the British rule. The government of Bangladesh let the place go to hell, they could have laid down water pipes, electricity lines and highways or put in place a decent infrastructure for a second and/or a third city, instead of cramming everything into a small place like Dhaka, but to quote one local I met “If corruption around the world was a competition, then Bangladesh would surely be champions”.

It is one of those places that has to be seen to be believed, for anyone unwilling to experience the harsh realities of Dhaka themselves, I recommend reading Like a Diamond in the Sky by Shazia Omar for a unique insight into this multidimensional metropolis. For me, it was time to leave Bangladesh, but not before I could witness another car crash on the airport road and be stared at one last time in the departure lounge, by the airport cat!

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Bangla Rambla

Cox’s bazar is Bangladesh’s ‘premier’ holiday resort and the world’s longest beach. It definitely won’t win any awards for the nicest beach, but was decent enough for a sunset stroll. The only attraction, apart from ourselves, was the corpse of a risso dolphin which had sadly washed up on the sand. The Bangladeshi holiday makers loved having their photos taken with the dead sea mammal like it was a famous land mark, there’s one for the photo collection…

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This is how you relax in Cox’s bazar

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Cox’s bazar 2013 holiday snaps

Travel plans were severely disrupted yet again when our train was running 10 hours late after an earlier train completely derailed, Bangladeshi transport doesn’t have a very good safety record.

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Child labour in Bangladesh has controversially been brought into the spotlight in recent years. I met the world’s youngest bus conductor…

In Ramadan, the more wealthy population have a tendency to be extra generous to the poor. As you’d expect, beggars are even more persistent at this time. During our journey to Srimangal I had an old man stroking my hair for a full 10 minutes. I’m not going to lie, I actually quite enjoyed it…

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Give a man two taka, and he’ll take your compadre!

Srimangal is known as the tea capital of Bangladesh, and was a half good opportunity to escape the crowds. Scottish tea makers Finlay’s swapped Glasgow for Bangladesh in the early 1900s to set up their huge estates. The Bengali workforce used to be payed in special coins that could only be spent at the tea estates to stop the employees sending money back to their families, a complete exploitation of basic human rights which is still questionable today in Bangladesh…

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Tea Picker

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Some more tea estate staff

At only 70m above sea level, the tea grown in Srimangal has a unique taste, but not as unique as the bonkers 7 layer tea. Each of the 7 layers, mystically piled on top of each other, all have their own taste. A little sickly, but has its novelty value…

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7 layer tea with flies

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Snake charmer on the streets of Srimangal

Lawacherra national park is a nice patch of greenery in the area, I came here to try and catch a glimpse of the endangered Hoolock gibbons. Unlike Bangladeshi people, the hoo-hoo-hoolock gibbons don’t follow westerners everywhere, so you’ve got a better chance of seeing one in the thoroughly depressing mini zoo back in the town…

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You will find plenty of not so deadly Orb spiders

With all the talk of Newcastle’s desperate need of a new striker, I’ve found the man for the job right here in Srimangal. I’d make a better director of football than Joke Kinnear…

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What’s Going On In The Desh?

The India-Bangladesh border at Akhaura, is definitely the most unorganised crossings I’ve ever had the displeasure of going over. It resembles a building site that has no concept of health and safety, the computerised system didn’t work and our Indian visas were barely checked by the aging customs officer. A good hour was spent hopping from building to building before we could finally cross the rubicon, and into Bangladesh. Some time was spent waiting for the Chittagong train at Akhaura station feeling like a caged animal in an extremely twisted zoo, but that’s another story. In the meantime a hungry beggar woman came over on her honkers with the usual trouser pulling whilst giving it the ‘feed me’ gestures. I normally deal with beggars in Asia the same way I deal with beggars at home, by completely blanking them. However, on this occasion I offered her a banana, only to have it rejected in preference of money, so the first thing I’ve learned about Bangladesh is that beggars can be choosers…

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Chittagong takes its name from an ancient phrase ‘tse tse gong’ which means ‘war should never be fought’, but to put it simply, Chittagong is not worth fighting over. The sprawling, chaotic mess which makes Middlesbrough look like the green capital of Europe, is an interesting but not too pleasant place to spend a few days settling into Bangladeshi life. We took a local row boat over the Khanaphuli river from the oldest part of the city, Sadarghat. Apart from being followed and gawped at over on the other side, there was a stomach churning meat market which was enough to make any man turn veggie…

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Sadarghat ferryman

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Stop and stare

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”Butcher, you got a cow’s head?”

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What’s everyone looking at? Ah yeah, me

Rangamati is only a few hours away in the area known as the Chittagong hill tracts. The hill tracts is the stronghold of the Adivasi (ethnic groups). It has a troubled history, most notably an extended period of guerrilla warfare that was brought on after the government attempted a genocide to rid the area of all Adivasi. Kaptai lake was constructed in the 1960’s as a source of hydroelectricity, in the process 40% of the Adivasi cultivation land was submerged underwater.

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Accommodation in Bangladesh had so far seemed pretty good value for money. That was until we returned home one night to find our room infested with singing, dancing, rock ‘n’ rolling cockroaches. It was reminiscent of the scenes from MTV’s obscure 90’s movie Joe’s apartment…

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In this first week or so our travel plans have been severely disrupted due to some political tension taking place, that I was completely unaware of. Since early this year Bangladesh’s governing party, the Awami league, has been bringing to trial war criminals from the Bangladeshi liberation war of 1971. Ghulam Azam, former leader of the opposition party, Jamaat-e-Islami, at 90 years old was sentenced to 90 years imprisonment, a number of other Jamaat members have been sent to the gallows. Even though Jamaat-e-Islami only possess 5 seats of a possible 300 in the Bangladeshi parliament, they still have the power to call nationwide hartal (shutdowns) in protest to the tribunal’s decisions.

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Always habidah habidah balclatnatabip poona…

During these hartals, public transport doesn’t operate which led to us being stuck in Rangamati and Chittagong for longer than planned. Some of the clashes have turned violent, busses have been petrol bombed throughout the country, all this and the fact that now it is Ramadan, so day time food is hard to come by, I’ll admit this isn’t exactly the perfect time to visit Bangladesh. So far it has been very frustrating, but if it means living on the edge whilst eating nothing but salted crackers during daylight, so be it, I’m determined not to let it spoil my summer ‘holiday’ in the Desh. The question on my mind, what will happen in 90 years when the 180 year old Ghulam Azam has served his time?

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