Bangla Country Stare-fest

Trip Start Sep 18, 2010
Trip End Jul 27, 2011

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Where I stayed
Tea Resort and Museum

Flag of Bangladesh  , Sylhet,
Tuesday, January 4, 2011

GMG is the Bangladeshi airline Manu and I are booked on from Bangkok to Dhaka. The landing is one of the smoothest ever. The flight one of the most entertaining.
- People are staring at us. I think I am the only blond person in the whole plane. This won't change for a week. Not the staring. And not the oddness of being blond.
- The guy behind me is shaking my reclined seat, complaining how he could possibly eat without me straightening my seat. The stewardess seems to  be in support. Never mind that I was napping. There seems to be a set of different rules on this airline.
- The flight attendant unapologetically pours water over Manu's arm and carelessly carries on. 
- Later, when we ask her for coffee after lunch, she looks at us in disbelief, asking "Now?" in a rather unprofessional tone of voice.We explain that we waived at her several times earlier when she ran up and down the aisles shouting if anyone wants coffee. She brings the coffee but keeps an attitude we find amusing.
- Someone, presumably the stewardess, ceaselessly bangs on the bathroom door, seconds after I locked it behind me.
- A group of men, not looking young, but behaving like teenagers, speaking (?) to each other across several rows at the top of their lungs. Someone from the same group playing loud music from his cell phone, like a handheld ghetto blaster.

After weeks of unpleasant dreams and panicky thoughts at the prospect of returning from this life-time trip, I am suddenly and fondly remembering some things I am now appreciating and looking forward to. Simple things like a service mentality, sense of personal space, lack of public hoarking, confidence in sleeping without a sleeping bag liner. At the same time, I am embarrassed at how I feel. After all, the point of traveling is to experience other cultures, open your mind to differences and recognize that humans are all alike. Isn't it?! There are moments and events that make me feel I accomplished that. And then, there are those where I am afraid/embarrassed/sad to admit that I feel rather arrogant about my manners and what I consider civilized behaviour compared to others. Does that mean I failed one of my objectives?
As I write this, we take off again from a stop-over in Chittagong and fly into the sunset. The sky is on fire. In the end I feel blessed again for having seen this many sunrises and sunsets over the past 3-1/2 month. From two deserts, one magical landscape, two beaches, one metropolis, one ancient city carved in rocks, several uncomfortable bus rides and one range of the world's highest mountains. And I wouldn't want to change anything!

Landing smoothly in Dhaka, we are awaited by the immigration helpline. Shaista's aunt Yasmin strongly recommended we pay their service to get us through th visa process swiftly. They do probably help skipping a line of a half dozen Egypt guys dressed in traditional Arab clothing and head scarf. Other than that, there is nothing complicated about it though that we could not have done ourselves. You line up, you pay your visa, you line up again and off you go. That night we sleep very little and Shaista who arrives on a later flight even less. We are up at the crack of dawn to catch a train to the North where we booked a tea garden visit.

At the train station we meet Messbaul, the CEO of the travel agency and our chaperon for the next two days. Supposedly, it would not be safe for us as three girls to travel alone. So Yasmin insisted on Messbaul accompanying us. We are booked first class, meaning noone is hanging off rooftops and doors. Entering our train car, it is so dark, I can barely see. Half the windows on one side are cracked all over so you can't see through. Messbaul asks people to move around until we have four seats together at non-broken windows. So we can look outside. Well, at least attempt to. The windows are so dirty, you can barely make out anything. Unlike our flight, people on this train are not loud, staring or blasting music. Tea is served in china, not plastic and despite it not looking like what we might expect from 1st class, it feels very civilized to me

A short ride in a 4WD and we arrive at the tea resort. Here we find out that Messbaul is even sharing a bungalow with us. Safety first? We quickly realize that we will not have many free moments without him at our side here. At one point, I am so annoyed I nearly scream at him for opening the door to our room uninvited, to tell us something that he could have just as well said through the closed door.

The area of Moulvi Bazaar that we are in feels beautifully authentic, with very few and continental only tourists. We take a hike in a rain forest at Lawachara Park, visit a Christian hill tribe called Khasia, have a chat with two Khasia ladies who invite us to sit with them in front of their hut and try betel nuts and betel leaves with them. They taste disgusting. Thankfully, they don't stain your teeth and mouth orange right away. The ladies even give us some handmade necklaces and we have to insist on 'tipping' them in return. The second day, I ask to stop in the middle of a busy village intersection in Kamalganj so I can take some photos. Noone seems to have cared to do that before. Shaista tries to explain to me what is so weird about my request. It will take me many more days to develop a small sense of understanding. Everyone stares at us. Someone suggests that we take a riksha to the local market. GREAT idea and one of my favourite travel experiences. At the market, we are quickly collecting a crowd of 40 or so people, following us around as we take pictures. We look at people, they stare back at us. We take pictures, they take pictures of us with their cell phones. It's a stare-fest. We are just as exotic to them as they are to us. I love it. At another hill tribe, this one of Hindu background called Monipuri, the air is thick with the dust of rice or some sort of grain powder. Not a place for someone with hay fever or similar allergies. I enjoy using their 'washroom facilities'. And finally we get to see the production process at a tea estate.
Happy with our time here, we are waiting for our train back. It is an hour late and we collect a following again while we wait. I learn that the roof top seats on the trains are free. I pass on this adventure opportunity and find my way to our 1st class seat using my head lamp. Others use the lights from their cell phones. It is pitch dark. 

On a side note, I would add a head lamp to the list of 'must-carry' items for a backpacker and prioritize it highly (thanks to Chetan for the shopping advice!). The first item on this list is toilet paper. Don't go anywhere assuming there will be toilet paper! That includes hotels, restaurants, hostels, guesthouses and private homes as well. Unless of course, you can get comfi with the 'bum gun' supplied almost everywhere.

Half way on our train ride back to Dhaka, a rifled security guard walks through the train. When I ask about this, I am told that on this particular stretch robberies are not uncommon. Maybe Messbaul's presence is justified after all?
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