Although I’ve been a little harsh on the environment in Dhaka, we’ve now had two trips out in the country and I can happily state that Bangladesh is absolutely beautiful.
We first went for a weekend away to Rajshahi, which is right on the western border with India, separated by the Padma river, better known as the India Ganges. Standing on the bank looking at the Ganges was a pretty astounding experience, making one realise that I really was in Bangladesh, and looking out over the Thames two weeks previously was now just a memory. This is my reality now. But unfortunately this bit of the Ganges wasn’t particularly sacred, and in fact was quite visually underwhelming, just a big, broad, grey marshy puddle.
The city of Rajshahi was also fairly non descript, especially given it’s got a population of nearly 3million. Essentially you could say it was a market town, quite lively and colourful in places but not like Dhaka, and without any major point of interest. We didn’t really spend much time in there, because we were out visiting another VSO volunteer, Samson, and observing the work he was doing as a management advisor to five NGOs that work with the indigenous communities that live around Rajshahi, mostly delivering education.
But what we really were observing, what you can’t help but be taken aback by was the sheer beauty of the landscape. Because Bangladesh is almost completely flat, the scenery just stretches off in to the horizon, miles and miles of rice fields shimmering in the heat haze. It reminded me a little bit of the countryside in Apocalypse Now (unfortunately) just before the Americans came and destroyed it. The rice fields seemed to be divided in to broad rectangular shapes, with little dirt roads rising out from them and criss-crossing the land. You would occasionally see people either driving along the roads on a bike/rickshaw/motorbike, and sometimes see people wading through the paddies and working the land.
The only thing that disrupted the endless view were the trees that had been planted to line the paths, turning them in to avenues and helping to create some sense of scale. Occasionally a tree would rise up out of the paddies, claiming the field as the biggest thing there, and providing a seat for the crows and other birds that flew around, creating almost the only sound in the vast expanse of countryside.
But what strikes you is the peace, the utter tranquillity of not just the panorama but also the way of life. Compared to urban Bangladesh, which is just one big competition for money, for food, for space, for life, this seemed the complete opposite. And I liked that.
We visited several little hamlet along the roads, which were dotted everywhere. They would usually consist of a cow or two, some chickens, a goat, maybe a small pig, a vegetable patch, and houses made from mud and roofed with thatch, or occasionally corrugated iron. I’ve put a few photos up to try and convey it a bit better. You would find that either a few different families, or one large one would live there, lots of children, but rarely did we see more than perhaps 20 people.
Nearly 95% of Bangladesh is on the national grid, so they had power, but hardly had lightbulbs let alone have any consumer goods that required powering. The men seemed to be occupied working the land, and the women either helped with that or were making things out of jute, or sewing small bags or something similar to sell in the tiny markets and little stalls that randomly punctuated the area. Through this I suppose they would make enough money to trade with, when necessary, but it was very much a life of self-sufficiency.
It was almost like going back 100 years to European farming and rural life; this would be the type of scene that inspired someone like Beatrix Potter. But of course there’s absolutely nothing primitive about it, ironically it would be the kind of lifestyle you now see thousands of middle-aged city executives trying to retreat to, so they can ‘escape from it all’, ‘get back to nature’, ‘rediscover what family life is all about’ and have it shown over six episodes on Channel 4, with book in the shop for Christmas. Makes you wonder who’s really the developed country.
We got to Rajshahi by bus, which is by far the most popular means of mass transportation in Bangladesh. There are hundreds of small companies, some with just one bus, that move the people around. The roads are by and large quite a good standard, and most busses (usually from China or India) have AC, reasonable leg room, and a tv at the front showing the latest Bangladeshi soap-opera, which is a bit like watching Hollyoaks on acid.
The buses are certainly more comfortable than anything the British National Express has to offer, but don’t have a toilet, so we were all playing a game of trying to balance drinking just enough water to stay hydrated, without drinking too much and having to sit in elaborate, yogi-like positions in our seats to reduce pressure on the bladder. When we finally did pull in to a service station the exodus could only be described as a stampede.
However good the scenery is though, everyone’s eyes were either closed through fear or fixed on the road as we sped past everything in our past, often swerving at the very last second to avoid making the national papers (Huge collision between buses on Rajshahi highway, 60 dead, dentists being flown to the scene to assist in identification). The roads were only single lane, so the fact that they were in good condition actually made things worse. Size matters on the Deshi highways, and we careered along, wacky races style, as if the driver was both being paid extra for every minute he arrived early, and auditioning to take over from Schumacher next season, especially for Monaco.
Because our bus was quite big and had a powerful engine, we seemed to have the ‘right’ to stop for almost nothing, and we spent at least half our time on the wrong side of road over-taking. If something else was coming for us head-on, but smaller, then it was the responsibility of the oncoming driver to slow down and manoeuvre away from us, and quite often we came literally yards away from a 60 mph collision. When we were in our own lane approaching something our driver would keep his head out of the window so he could judge at what point he could over-take with maximum aplomb.
And if, occasionally, we would come up behind a truck or bus that could match our power, then a game would ensue as we would pull along side, both horns blaring out continuously, each driver willing the other to yield before we risked crashing. When we finally over-took (because we always prevailed eventually) the driver would put his hands in the air and the bus company official onboard would lean out of the other window and shake his fist back at the bastard who dared to challenge us. It was actually quite fun, but at the same time you wondered if the sick bags provided should have been made bigger to accommodate bodies.
Our second trip was in the opposite direction, up to a small town called Srimangal, tucked away in the North East of Bangladesh and again only about 5 miles from the Indian border. But whilst the geography in the west was all about rice, the land here was undulating, rising up and down a couple of hundred feet at a time, and covered with thousands of acres of tea.
We travelled by train, which was only 200 taka (about £1.50) for a first class single fare, and for that you got a little over head fan to blow the warm air around, and the kind of seat so vast, soft and enveloping that you could quite easily lose your whole arse in it, as well as loose change. The train was quite efficient, slow (probably around 50mph tops) but that meant for better scenery as we ambled out of Dhaka and across numerous rivers towards Srimangal. At first it was all flat and rice fields but gradually we began to climb a bit and the land became less uniform, with a greater diversity of crops and vegetation.
We stopped numerous times at little towns with no real station, just everyone jumping out or hopping on, and traders rushing up to all the open windows and trying to thrust their goods into your lap. When it started to get dark though, our carriage got stormed by thousands of insects coming in to the open windows, and we had to sit for the last hour in a mist of Lynx Bangladesh.
We stayed at the HEED guesthouse, which is run by the Health, Economic and Economic Development organisation, They are one of Bangladeshi’s oldest national development organisations, and in Srimangal they were running TB and Leprousy programmes. They also had lots of little bungalows that were rented out when not being used professionally and an ancient chef who churned out all the rice you could eat, all day long. I actually found it embarrassing we were treated so well, because we were picked up from the station, had all our food arranged, were introduced to all the HEED managers and were able to chat for an hour about their work. They advised us with what to do, where to go, drove us around, and arranged bikes for us. Hospitality of the like I’ve never had anywhere else, and all for very little money.
Srimangal is near the Assam region of India, and is covered with thousands of acres of tea. It’s also home to the Lowacherra National Park, so we were able to cycle along through almost a lush mangrove forest, with every metre of land hosting anything from huge trees to tiny shrubs, all vivid green, draped across and around each other fighting against each other for light and CO2. The air was thick with the sounds of birds and insects, scents of the earth and flowers, and oxygen. Absolutely stunning.
The tea estates themselves reminded me a bit of the vineyards I’ve been through in France and Switzerland, in the sense of being laid out in strict order across all the land, at uniform height, and stretching for as far as the eye could see. You could mostly wander around them, after asking permission, and we spent quite a while just enjoying the peace of it and complete contrast with Dhaka.
We didn’t really see any workers, but at five pm the paths suddenly became taken over by women walking back to the Estate base with huge sacks of tea balanced on their heads. I wouldn’t guess the weight, but in terms of size it must have been about 20 cubic litres, so was pretty impressive given the fragility of the women.
A lot of the estates were originally colonial enterprises, and the people who worked them tended to live on the land as well, so we past lots of little hamlets similar to those around Rajshahi, although constructed with plaster and stone rather than mud, and with proper roofs. One estate that we saw provided a crèche for the children, and although the work must be hard, the environment was certainly better than an office. Wherever I next have a swanky brew somewhere, I’ll remember where it all began. You don’t get too many cradle-to-grave organisations anymore, but this is what happens. Whether the workers have an early grave I don’t know, but regardless, this is a consequence of our Western addiction of consumption. And I love tea, so in this case am equally culpable.
For a tea lover, Srimangal might as well have been a Catholic’s Vatican. We even got to go in to the grounds of the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute, where there were all sorts of special crops being grown under covers behind fences. Enticing stuff. Most exciting of all was the Tea-Tasting room, which, if we’d been allowed to enter, I guess might have been the equivalent of rolling back the stone and entering the cave. Whoever has the clearance for there must have one of the best jobs in the world, and certainly must get through a lot of biscuits.
We came back from Srimangal all too soon, but in order to beat the siege of Dhaka that the opposition parties were imposing in protest against the new Caretaker government (we went from October 23rd to 26th). The other side of Bangladesh, its murky world of politics and real life cruelly apprehending us from our attempted escape. But in our two trips to see the other side of Bangladesh, I can definitely attest that the grass is a lot greener, and well worth a visit.