Trip Start Jul 2003
50Trip End May 2005
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Trailblazer's 'warm, wet and welcoming' couldn't have been better put.
After 5 months in dusty India what a pleasant surprise! A combination of trains, buses and bicycles took us through the border towns of Bangaon and Benapole to Khulna. The hospitality and courtesy of the Bengalis almost equalled that of the Iranians, as did the speed the crowds formed around us whenever we paused (no doubt to the jealousy of preaching politicians whose audiences we stole). A station master was insistent we awaited our train in his wooden furniture and dusty paper filled office whilst our tickets were brought to us (being taken for lunch compulsory), and big keys were turned in big old 'block system' machines to change the signals at some distant points
At 3am, the huge 1930's British built Mississippi-style paddle ship ('The Rocket') set off, with us safely settled in our 1st class cabin on the top deck around a large, table filled dining room. At 4am the lightning storm hit us. Squatting fishermen being thrown about balanced on tiny boats in our sweeping searchlight, the shouting, and the thunder of the anchor chains above the roar of the storm was alarming: no doubt small by local standards. Within half an hour it had calmed a little and, with the danger of being hit by a flying chair lessened, we ventured on to the deck to watch a passenger being vigorously paddled towards us through the driving rain. "Hello there my dear fellow!" he hailed up to us before almost toppling into the river and clambering aboard. Left, right, straight on through the vast river network of the Sundurbans; so many boats of different sizes, so many smiling and waving people.
Twenty two hours later we docked at the 'port' of Chandpur and poured off the ship with countless others to await the 5am train to Chittagong (seated comfortably in the office again, of course, trying to keep our eyes open whilst giving endless interviews and receiving gifts of cucumbers and sweets through the barred window). On the train, an extremely informative gentleman chatted to us about the country's declining jute trade (if he had never really heard of Dundee, he had no idea just how real Will's fascination with this subject was). We were filled with sadness of the slow destruction of the country internally through corruption, and externally through topics such as India's pouring of waste into the country via the Ganges. If levels of hygiene and amounts of rubbish were measures of development within a country, then you would hardly believe India to be more advanced than Bangladesh: whilst the level of fermenting rubbish everywhere in the former is indescribable to anyone who has never been there, the latter is 'approaching clean' in comparison. Our other fellow passenger in 1st Class was a chicken.
Chittagong. A cyclone prone port, with a particular sight worth seeing: ship breaking yards. Vast oil tankers, cruise liners and other gigantic vessels are run ashore to be literally torn to pieces by hand. The sight and noise of hundreds of men wading through the low tide mud dragging huge pieces of metal between carcasses of ships is unforgettable. It is the country's primary source of steel, and fuels the growing corrugated iron industry which in turn roofs most of the population. We chatted to the owner of one of the yards. "Do you know," he told us, "it takes several years to build one of these giants, and in a month they're gone." The long road to the yards is lines with 'shops' disposing of everything else cannabalised from the ships, from doors to lifeboats. Ship remains are scattered throughout the city, explaining the warnings on hotel mirrors that 'Cabins are checked before and after sailing'.
Cox's Bazaar. A hair-raising 4 hour bus ride south rewards with the world's longest beach: saris in the surf for 120km. Cyclone shelters and gut-wrenching fresh and dried fish markets complete the entertainment, although the coral reefs of St Martin's Island are supposed to be impressive (stormy weather preventing us from finding out). Once again we were within striking distance of Burma - not possible once again although 'Friendship Road' (goodbye more rainforest) is due to open soon.
Dhaka. Hello again to more dust, smog and millions of Dick Whittingtons on the irreversible journey from the slightly less crowded countryside. In half an hour we had seen more disabilities and diseases than in the whole of India in 5 months. The Bengali New Year on the 14th saw too many hands in pockets and ever increasing clothes-drenching heat and humidity. The capital is blighted by regular hartals (national strikes) as directed by one or other political party, although with only half the traffic, movement around the city (cycle rickshaw) is actually feasible. The old town is mainly narrow packed wynds making everything from soap to the ancient art of conch shell bracelets. The odd hidden caravannserai from a long lost spice route makes it all quite appealing.
Currently voted as the world's most venal country, as we rickshawed out of the train station we were accosted by a couple of very young youths demanding money. We obviously refused, and when we told our driver to do likewise he was very nervous and didn't seem to know what to do: two older lads then came over and, with politeness to us, took 5 taka off him.
Corruption is now so severe that it has a widely known framework, with the police enforcing it enough to maintain its structure (eg the huge Chittagong arms haul last week). Every day the papers are filled with stories of market traders being 'chopped up' for not paying up. Despite all the suffering, the Bengalis' pleasantness and smiles always shine through and as increasing tornados force us back to India we shall miss (most of) them.
As we've not mentioned food for a while: most of the 'Indian' restaurants in the UK are actually owned by East Bengalis, and are therefore technically Bangladeshi restaurants. The dupiazas, bhunas and jalfrezis in the past few weeks have probably been the best food in the last 9 months.
Back to India by boat and, with monsoons hot on our heels, north across the Himalayan plateau.
Will and Emma