Cycling in Sylhet

I now have a quick five minute ride in to work, which I still find surreal because I go past wedding-cake style mansions and also through a slum of shacks made from dried mud and crooked bits of tin. It’s a bit like cycling back in time to the middle of the 19th century, naked children running around, kids pushing tires down the path or pulling rocks tied to string along for fun. Old women sit and stare at you as you whiz past, faces leathered by thousands and thousands of consecutive days of hard work in the dust and sun and mud and monsoon, yet you know they’re probably only thirty.

And then a few sharp turnings and I’m back on the main road and in the modern world again. It blows my mind, every time.

My bike is an absolute relic, but its lack of manoeuvrability and braking makes it even more exciting to ride at night. I’ve started to go out in the dark, especially when there’s a power cut on, because there’s this mist that sets in and you can’t really see anything. Zooming around with only five feet of visibility is kind of cool, because you never know what’s suddenly going to appear in front of you. The streets are packed with the rush hour, but because only half the hazards on the road have lights (rickshaws, bikes, people and animals don’t) something can rear up at you out of nowhere, lit up only by a murky beam of light from a distant motorbike, or you might just catch half their face from a candle that’s in a small shack on the road, for a split second and then they’re gone.

There’s no perspective in the dark so it’s a bit like moving through this blackened out world where you’re confronted rapidly, at random, by everything in Bangladesh right in your face and then it goes back in to the black again. It’s slightly like being in a club with strobe lighting, except the strobe is targeted to tiny characters, and you never can tell where it’s going to hit. Your other senses become heightened because everyone dodges each other through constant ringing of bells, beeping of horns, banging on cars, shouting or even the occasional moo. It’s a bit like bats communicating through sonar, buzzing around an enormous cave that is for me the dark streets of Bangladesh. You have to look out for the moonlight against an open-sewer, but you can try and smell for that as well, and equally smell for the food stands that sizzle away on the pavement.

So when you’re completely immersed and enveloped in your environment, all your senses sharp and tuned to whatever Bangladesh might throw at you, it’s pretty cool. I like to mix it up a little by playing my ipod really loud, to add a little extra pace. The Smith’s Queen is Dead is the best for this, because the attack and urgency of Marr’s guitar drives everything frantically along. Heroin by Lou Reed is pretty good as well, because it provides the ultimate soundtrack to the rush. Gotta get your kicks from somewhere.

Cycling in the darkness is fun because you can’t witness your environment, passively, you have to actively experience it, and that’s a good thing to do. That’s what we’ve all realised; the guidebooks don’t have much because there isn’t that much to ‘see’ in the traditional sense, unless you like rice fields, poverty and traffic. Bangladesh is a country you have to slowly absorb; it’s almost a state of being which doesn’t really transmit through instant observation. I don’t for a second ‘feel’ Bangladeshi, and never could, but I am starting, I think, to feel Bangladesh.

Say something, anything, exists in its manifold pure state, you might witness it and sort it through your own filters of deduction until it becomes transformed into what you perceive it to be, which might be totally different from its unsynthesised reality. For example I genuinely believe Spurs are going to qualify for the Champions League every August.

Bangladesh defies that induction. Normal sensory perception based on my previous, western experience is totally inadequate, so you have to witness it in its far more pure state, and that’s quite shocking at first, but once you get used to it, you might realise that it’s not so bad. It’s overwhelming to be in this world with your cultural/personal defences down, but nothing’s threatening, it just IS.

I’ve grown a beard and become a philosopher…this doesn’t mean there aren’t amazing sights as well though. I was walking up through a crappy part of town, all butchers and ironmongers and hawkers and beggars. One old guy was walking along towards me, a complete state, no sandals, hair in clumps and caked in dirt and sweat. But he was wearing a tattered, torn t-shirt which bore the inimitable slogan ‘No Money, No Home, No Woman, No Problem’.

Whatever it means, you can’t help but love it.


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