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Boat from  Dhaka to Barisal

 

“A fine foreign gentleman like yourself should be traveling first class” the man at the ticket office said to me. Or maybe I made that up for dramatic effect, but I took one look at the paddle boat that was to carry me down the river to Barisal and I figured – isn’t it women and children then first class gentlemen allowed into the lifeboats first. The bathtub, the P.S Tern built in 1935, that was to be my home for the night looked in a worse state than the buses of Dhaka. I boarded under the guise of a 12 year old girl just to cover all bases.

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Now when I think of ships and first class I think of Titanic, pre iceberg. Sparkling chandeliers, suitably bigoted conversations about the plight of the common man, dinner at the captain’s table, posh birds by the name of Rose wanting a piece of the said common man, with or without plight (I believe you can get cream for this).

 

My reality though seemed more post Iceberg. The captain’s table was held together by various bits of flotsam, the chandelier a flickering neon strip light and Rose a pan chewing, toothless businessman with the liking for 12 year old English girls with beards.

To save the time on bigoted conversations I strolled around the decks where hundreds of punters were crammed together tighter than a buy 5 get 1 free can of sardines. They had paid 100 TK as opposed to my wapping 500 TK (That’s 1 pound as opposed to 5 quid to you and me). I hummed Jarvis Cocker’s “I want to live like common people, I want to do want common people do”, I fired of some photos and reveled in my position to be able to flirt with the masses as well as those of the finer class and concluded that Jarvis was completely wrong and probably a liar.

 

Now I have met different types of travelers –  there are those that say you have to travel lowest class on everything, stay in the worst places possible, and if you can’t get food poisoning from it, it just isn’t worth eating. And then there are those that do not even meet an Indian person, god forbid, “why go to India to meet the people when you can do that at home.” Well I am in the middle, I like a certain level of comfort, I will go to pizza hut and hang out with middle class India when the needs must and I will eat in the worst, but best cafe, when the needs must, but I am not going to great lengths to ensure I suffer, just so I know that I am alive, so that i know I have traveled. Do this when needs must.

 

I was asked if I wanted an English meal or Bengali. Since I was at this level of hoityness I chose the English. I marveled at how the Christmas jumper wearing head steward, hit the waiter when he did not lay the cutlery out correctly. He obviously had received proper silver service training at some point in his life and by god they were going to get it right for this fine English gentleman. As I sat trying to remember which spoon I should use first or should I use the white or pink napkins I watched as my well to do Bangladeshi fellow passengers ate with their hands.

 

I then went to the toilet, but was rapidly steered into one with the direction “Use the English one sir”. A proper toilet with English toilet paper, I was impressed, no Royal Doulton or Armitage Shanks, but a fine pristine bowl. As I sat there I admired the rusting, gaping, hole and the water rush past, I also inspected the welding and noted that none of it would meet any ISO or Health and Safety standard.

 

Bus from Barisal to Kuakata

 

After applying helmet and bubble wrap (see previous blog entry) I clambered on board the bus for Kuakata. This was to entail possible death, 6 hours of bumpy roads and 5 ferry crossings. This meant lots of tea stops. Everywhere I went a crowd would gather around me, watching my every movement. I found myself standing or sitting in various poses that you find male models doing in Kayes catalogues or similar. If I were to be raised to such celebrity status, then I sure was going to look the part. Then somebody would pipe up  “where are you from”, “England” I would respond, “England” the crowd would murmur the message around. This would then generally be followed by  – what was my name, what did I work as, was I married, how many in my family, why was I here…. A standard set of questions, a standard set of answers, a standard murmur and nodding with acknowledgment, but they didn’t want more info…. No questions on politics, or religion, time and space ……. As the tea stops went on I found my job status changed, I realised I could be anything I wanted. At one stop I was a lecturer in astro physics…..”Lecturer in astro physics” murmured the crowd. 

 

 

Kuakata

 

I intended my time here to be quiet, sit by the sea, peace and do yoga. I found a room right on the beach perfect, view of sunrise and sunset, brilliant. Perfect and brilliant except for one thing, the landlord. This was a man that didn’t speak a word of English and had an uncanny resemblance to Abraham Lincoln. Now when you rent a room, it tends to be your private space for the period of rental. Well my room was the only room with a TV, so Abraham would sit there watching it, volume on full, I told him to move it into the other room, so he obliged and sat there watching it, volume on full. He would follow me around and insist I ate at only one cafe, I had to decline. He offered me home made alcohol, I had to decline. Then one evening he asked if i wanted Maya, he made a boobs gesture and banged his fists together, I rapidly figured out that he was pimping out one of the local girls to me. I could not believe it, in such a small village, by the sea, this was so un British, a knocking shop here. I had to decline.

 

Now I can’t blame Abraham for his annoying persistence to satisfy my every need, actually I am quite flattered. He probably thought I was a lonely pisshead in need of a good shag. But it is something that I have noted about the sub continent, it is almost impossible to find peace and quiet. I am sure that most sub continentians have to have some noise or they just die. Go to the most tranquil beauty spot and a bus load of Indian’s will pull up, the first thing they will do is put a ghetto blaster on at full blast so that it distorts the speakers, be up a mountain taking in the view and the Nepali guide will just have to play the latest Bollywood song through his phone, be in the most tranquil village by an ancient bridge across a babbling brook and it will be destroyed by the constant car horns of the cars warning people that they are on the bridge crossing the babbling brook.

 

How on earth the sub continent invented the disciplines of yoga and meditation I do not know. The Buddha must have had great insight to the future or been deaf. Lets invent yoga so that people can sit on a bus for 12 hours and lets invent meditation, because at least it will shut one person up for 36 hours or so. I find myself longing for the peace of a London rush hour.

 

So anyway if you ever go to Kuakata, avoid the only hotel right on the beach with only two rooms, unless you want some local grog or wish to help support the local women’s contribution to the family income.

 

 

When I think of Bangladesh I generally think of some natural or human disaster. Because of its geography it is prone to cyclones, widespread flooding and political turmoil. So I guess it is apt. that I arrived in dense fog – this combined with a puncture, the bus getting lost in the fog and the carnage that was out on the roads meant that the journey from Calcutta to Dhaka took a laborious 20 hours of no sleep, no food and not a thing to be seen. Furthermore I arrived on Victory day, so everything was shut. Exhausted I decided to check into a posh hotel, well posh by my standards, at 9 quid a night it was not my usual flea pit.

 

Dhakahas an official figure of 88,700 rickshaws, well that is the number that government says. Another figure estimates it closer at 600,000. From the 8thfloor of the Manhattan hotel, my toilet has a great view of an intersection and the chaos that it embraces. I would also like to note that the cistern of the toilet was connected to the hot water supply, so every time I flushed it emptied several gallons of boiling water down the drain – is this something posh hotels do or is it another example of the insane plumbing that you find on the sub continent. I also noted that the shower ran out of hot water quite quickly…..I pondered if there was a way to get the toilet connected to the shower. Anyway, so back to the rickshaws, however many there may be, they make a lovely tinkling noise, this combined with the constant use of horn and the call to prayer gives Dhaka wonderful, chaotic, sound. If I were to get a stomach bug, this would be the place I would wish it to be, a toilet with a view and the harmonious symphony of a working city.

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And then there are the buses. If you have ever been banger racing and seen the aftermath of the twisted and torn, once family, motors. Then this will give you an indication of what the buses look like, this then too will give you an idea of how they drive. If you are going to die on a bus, then this is the place it will likely be. I started planning routes to the many places I wanted to visit….unfortunately there is no way of avoiding buses…….I started planning the newspaper article “Bus crash carnage in Bangladesh, 40 dead only 1 survivor, a westerner” there is then a photo of me in full crash helmet and encased in 30 layers of bubble wrap, with the quote “I thought I had had it when the local kids started popping my bubbles.”

 

 

More to follow in Bangladesh – power to the people (Part 2)

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