Beauty and the Bengali Beast
To many, Bangladesh is the postcard from hell. An “international basket case” as Nobel Peace Prize laureate Henry Kissinger declared it after the 1971 Liberation War and resulting split from Pakistan crushed the economy and left more than three million dead. Every few years the 'no-hope nation' hits the news with more disasters: droughts, famine, floods and cyclones. Add to this bus crashes, protests, power struggles and riots – it doesn’t sound like your ideal holiday destination.
But what’s on one traveller’s ‘bucket list’ is on another traveller’s ‘fuck-no-way' list. So when the opportunity came up to take a week-long trip with a local tour operator called Experience Bangladesh, I decided to bungee jump into the adventure and find out for myself what this place is all about. Besides, just how ‘bad’ can one place really be?
Day one in Dhaka, the capital city, and a 10-minute bus ride into the centre has now taken two hours. People and bicycles and carts and rickshaws and taxis and buses and trucks and CNGs (gas-fuelled auto rickshaws that aim to reduce pollution) form one impenetrable knot. It’s far from the “wildly spinning fairground ride” that Lonely Planet describes – though maybe it would be if you could actually move.
With more than seven million people squeezed into an area the size of a Hawaiian island, Dhaka is one of the most densely populated cities on earth. A little rickshaw-to-rickshaw traffic is, hence, no surprise.
But what the city lacks in movement, it makes up for in entertainment. Men parade tall sticks of pink and white fairy floss through narrow gaps between cars. Suitcase-sized pans and parcels pass my window on the crowns of heads. Ladders get pulled from carts as timber comes crashing into the road. A shabby bus pulls up with ‘business class’ scrawled down the side and ten people clinging onto the doorframe. A car sideswipes a rickshaw; some money changes hands. Horns honk, bells tinkle, the call for prayer resounds.
Situated between India and Myanmar, and straddling the Ganges Delta, Bangladesh has one of the biggest Muslim populations in the world but is also the third largest Hindu state after India and Nepal. Yet it proudly proclaims to be a secular nation. Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian holidays are celebrated. Mosques, temples, monasteries and churches stand side by side.
Eventually, wide roads give way to ridiculously narrow roads in Old Dhaka, with cha stalls, barber shops and groups of people playing carrom – a table-hockey-like game where the puck is flicked across talcum powder to make it slide.
Upon exiting the bus, I immediately get a taste of my own tourism medicine. A crowd of curious onlookers gathers around me. Soon, I’m wedged in the middle of what could look like an NRL melee, yet there’s no tugging at clothes, bearing teeth or even begging.
I shuffle to our destination, a nearby rickshaw workshop, with my spectators in tow. Rickshaws provide one of the largest sources of employment in the country – from mechanics to builders and painters. Inside the dark shop, artists pimp out their vehicles with tassels, tinsel and garish movie posters advertising the latest hits from Dhallywood (the Bengali take on Bollywood). I’m told the pedal-powered artwork has even become a bit of a collector’s item. Like Banksy, the humble rickshaw decorator has changed the way we look at street art.
Though there are other sights to see in the city – the half-complete Lalbagh Fort and the magnificent Ahsan Manzil, or Pink Palace – the vehicle and people traffic, whether on the road or on the footpath, manage to cut short our time. Instead, the next day we head out of town, where the bus-choked lanes open up into emerald fields and rice paddies.
We spend a couple of days in and around Tangail, a pretty little community that’s famous for its textile crafts, cricket pitches and cows. Here, farming cooperatives are common and vegetable calendars are like clocks. In the afternoons, I learn how to eat the Bengali way, with my right hand, and gorge myself on the best food I have ever eaten: fresh lentils and fish, wild rice, eggplant, spinach and chum chums – a coconut-flavoured dessert that’s so sweet it could take a tooth out. In the evenings, the villagers treat us to performances of poetic, but quite complex, folk songs about farms, fish and philosophy.
By the fourth day, I feel full on land activities and I’m ready for the river. A short (though still time-consuming) bus, plane and boat away from the rural district of Jessore lies the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Sundarbans. Situated on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal, the region is a network of tidal waterways, mudflats and camps (there are no towns). As one of the largest mangrove forests in the world, it is home to more than 250 species of birds and many threatened animals like the Ganges river dolphin and Bengal tiger.
“The tiger is the guardian of the forest,” says Bachchu, our captain for the next two nights on the M. L. Bawali. “People are afraid of entering the forest …” he pauses, “… because the tiger is protecting it from being developed. Everyone is afraid of the tiger.”
Once upon a time, Bachchu explains tigers used to roam the Sundarbans over a 12-kilometre radius. These days tiger territory stretches only for four. This is due not only to limited fresh water and rising sea and salt levels, but also to humans.
“The tigers come into the village and the people get scared, scared for their lives, so they beat the tigers and they hurt them,” he says. “But the people are starting to see now. They see the nature is important, the forest is important, the tigers are important. Now they want to protect this.”
In 2003, a British man named Adam Barlow came up with an idea to help empower locals to live harmoniously with tigers. The WildTeam conservation organisation tracks tiger behaviour and operates nightly patrols around the 76 villages in the Sundarbans. When a tiger enters a village, a TigerTeam responds by whistling, drumming, beating the ground with sticks and making one hell of a coordinated racket to drive the tiger back into its habitat.
Unfortunately, for someone who’s keen to spot one of the greatest creatures on earth, the tiger does not make an appearance during the time we are on the boat. Still, I’m content chugging along the flat water, without a rickshaw or truck in sight.
Every few hours we stop to stretch our legs on land, visiting remote villages where the residents walk up to 20 kilometres just to get a bucket of fresh water. At times, we meet locals with big smiles and such technicolour saris that they practically reinvent the rainbow. At other times, we look for pugmarks (paw prints) in the wet, silvery mud. Then, back onboard the boat, we lounge around on the top deck, taking in the misty sunset and listening to hooting monkeys or Bachchu’s yarns.
“I tell you this story makes my hairs stand up,” he exclaims. “Looking at that tiger, I fall in love – it’s so beautiful you cannot believe it. It is the most beautiful animal I have ever seen.”
Finally, the last day rolls around and my trip draws to an end. Like the tiger, I deduce, Bangladesh is a contrast of beauty and beast. It’s a little unpredictable and tense at times. Traffic is a complete nightmare. Navigating the streets or local transport system is more than a challenge. Going without a beer for nearly a week can be tough. But fearless creatures that go where the more cautious dare not tread, get rewarded with rich and fulfilling experiences. As American poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau once said: “It is not part of a true culture to tame tigers any more than it is to make sheep ferocious.”
China Southern Airlines flies from Sydney to Dhaka, via Guangzhou in China, from A$951 return.
Enlisting the help of a tour guide is recommended as logistically it is difficult, though not impossible, to travel in Bangladesh. Experience Bangladesh offers a range of trips, such as the seven-day ‘Taste of Bangladesh’ tour for around US$1,000 per person, or five-day ‘Sundarbans Wildlife’ tour for around US$830 per person.