Dhaka – Bangladesh.
As with India, tell people you’re off to Bangladesh and everyone becomes an expert on travel health with the overriding assumption that anyone who visits these countries will see their guts explode before the ink is dry on their passport stamp. The following weekend they order a curry from the local Indian and watch X-Factor. I was even told by someone that India would be the last place they would go to because they knew someone who got ill there and never fully recovered. That’s a bit like never going to Africa because you might get malaria or never visiting the US because you might get shot. Now don’t get me wrong, there is certainly a heightened risk travelling to India and Bangladesh and I wouldn’t be far away from toilet roll, wet wipes and Imodium but I have now travelled both countries and both were a success for my bowels. What I can say is that there are many, many countries in the world that will take down a traveller, it’s luck of the draw. My last meltdown was at home in the UK! It is always at the back of your mind though and I spent my five days in Bangladesh not daring to fart. Simply by doing this makes you even more paranoid about needing the bathroom. Local bathrooms in Bangladesh are not exactly welcoming and this makes one even more paranoid and hey presto, before you know it you have convinced yourself you’re ill. Basically it’s best to keep calm, carry on and, try not to laugh at anyone who isn’t so fortunate.
I had no reason or desire to go to Bangladesh, it’s just the tour dates worked with my time off work but I was excited nonetheless. Queuing for my visa at Dhaka international airport I received a text from Emirates telling me my bag hadn’t made my flight but not to worry as it would be coming on the next flight, arriving in the afternoon. The fact they told me before I even knew my bag was missing was quite impressive. Even more impressive was the wash bag and change of clothes they supplied me with before leaving the airport, never mind the fact my bag turned up at my hotel bang on when they said it would. Slightly less impressive was Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital city and home to twenty million people. The place is loud, dirty, smoggy, rammed with people, rickshaws, auto rickshaws, cars and buses that wait for no one. Every single bus looked like they had been in one too many demolition derby’s. The traffic in Dhaka is like nothing I’ve ever seen before. Everyone just keeps moving forward until not even a bicycle can weave it’s way out of a traffic jam. No one gives way and for good reason. Giving away allows another one million people to jump through the gap. Therefore, everyone moves in closer and closer until it resembles something similar to that of a collapsing star I imagine.
The thing is this. You don’t get any of that on the way to the local Indian restaurant on a Saturday night. You may think the traffic is bad but, it really isn’t it. Dakar is a place I don’t need or particularly want to go back to but I’m sure glad I paid a visit because such madness is guaranteed to be interesting and entertaining. I did have a hankering for a beer following a six week dry spell. My history can be quite sketchy and I had failed to notice that the population of Bangladesh is 90% muslim and so bars are not widely available. But no bother we found one. One that served a 330ml can of 12.8% beer for £6. It was either that or Heineken for the same price. Four cans of 12.8% later and food poisoning was the least of my worries the next day.
As with any city in the world there isn’t a great deal to see. There was the parliament building which looked a bit odd. An old French trading post – turned pink museum – and a fort that hadn’t been completed. The highlight was to board a ‘Rocket Steamer’ which is a 120 year old paddle steamer that would spend the night taking us up river to our next destination. The kind of boat that features on the news regularly after they sink. Funny story is that three of the steamers had broken down and the the fourth they had managed to crash into another boat. With all the conventional boats full due to an ongoing religious festival we had to make do with a second night in Dhaka before driving to Bagerhat the following day. However, there was still opportunity to get on the river. Don’t ask me which. Bangladesh is basically one huge delta, the largest in the world. The country is very flat and very wet yet they have still managed to turn rivers black. Jumping into little wooden boats we were slowly paddled up and down one of the main rivers that run through the city. Maybe a little wider than the Thames it was full of boats that were as bent and messed up as the busses with the occasional dead dog floating alongside for good luck. I have never seen river water so black, it made Leicester canal look tropical. Every drain appeared to flow into the river, the banks were lined with plastic and rubbish. It would have been a playground for cholera although I’m not sure even that could have survived in the river. And to top it off, there was a kid, no more than five years old crouching on a piece of wood, happily paddling himself around the banks of the river with not a care in the world at that moment in time.
The following day we had a six hour drive to Bagerhat which was broken up with a twenty minute speedboat ride across one of the countries many huge rivers. Highlights included gentlemen having a wee off the back of boats into the river without a care in the world, and barges so overloaded with cargo that the only thing not in the water was the teapot and steering wheel. Either side of the river we drove along one of Bangladesh’s new highways. Only it wasn’t complete. Their ambition is mind blowing for they are trying to build hundreds of miles of highway all at once. Not in sections. Hour after hour we would pass pieces of road that were almost complete, bridges not complete and no road at all. The genius of it all was that the new road was being built on top of the old road which happened to still be open as there was no other option. And so in between all the construction, life continued as normal whether there be tarmac to drive on or not.
During the final hour of the journey we left the unbuilt highway and the road gradually narrowed down to a single track which became ever more overgrown with trees. The madness of the city and highway had given away to the beauty and magnificence of the Bangladesh countryside. The contrast was beautiful. Small mud hut villages scattered the forest with the odd clearing for paddy fields and fish ponds. Out of nowhere a 400 year old brick temple rose into the fresh air. Maybe three stories high with a few old trees growing out the top of it. We then ventured off into Bagerhat to have a look at some mosques. One had nine domes, another had over sixty. Thats pretty much all I know. It was a strange affair as a local wanted to have a selfie with us, then another local appeared, and then another, and then another. Before we knew it we were surrounded by locals wanting selfies with us which lasted an easy half hour. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything quite like it before. Even the security man on the gate to the mosque with his two guns wanted a selfie as we headed out. This was a little daunting as when I leaned in for the pose, the muzzle of his gun was right under my chin and aiming up towards my head. Still, this didn’t stop me going back for another photo with him as I myself am rather short on photos with armed folk.