Off to the seaside

Our final trip within Bangladesh is to Cox’s Bazar and today pretty much just consisted of the bus ride there. We woke and packed, about to leave our room when reception called us to let us know Mahmud was downstairs. We were expecting him to meet us at the bus office, so that was a pleasant surprise. He’s certainly keen to take good care of us!

After a quick rickshaw ride over, we had breakfast with him and he then left for the office while we waited for the bus to arrive. Arrive it did, and we climbed on board our second long-distance coach in two days. Again, it was fairly comfy but not as good as the one from the day before. Still, far better than the ones in India – as are the roads, incidentally. The overnight bus from Bangalore to Goa had bounced around like a ship on high seas. The road surfaces in Bangladesh are generally very good.

There’s not a lot to write about the journey. It’s amazing how many people walk out into the road without looking, though. Or who look, see something so huge bearing down on them their brains can’t comprehend it and then just stroll out anyway. I think most of them go by sonar as they trust their hearing to pick up the blast of a horn more than they trust their eyes that there’s a big chuffing bus bearing down on them. One woman came so close to getting wiped out by the truck in front of us I actually closed my eyes.

We did have one delay just outside Chittagong, but neither of us know why. The bus seemed to be pulled over by a police officer for some reason, and then just sat there for almost an hour before simply setting off again.

Eventually, we arrived in Cox’s Bazar and we jumped off to be greeted by the usual bunch of rickshaw-wallahs wanting our business. We took two for the short ride to the hotel and then laughed in their faces when they asked for 200Tk for the journey. Hotel reception gave them short shrift and they left with the more correct fare of 10Tk each.

The room’s the usual and fairly spacious, and we do have a TV. Also, it’s Saturday and they usually have ESPN on the TVs here so I can watch the footie. Only… there’s a power cut. The generator seems to be working fine to power the lights but the satellite feed’s down. ARGH.

We did take a short wander out to get some money, food and snacks. Hans ended up in conversation with a small girl who followed him for ages, trying to give him a little starfish in exchange for some “bakhsheesh”. He ended up running around a gaggle of rickshaws to try and hide from her. Well, he will insist on speaking to all the kids he meets.

So not a lot to do this evening but sit and read (I’ve finished four books this week already) and sleep (I’ve slept enough for three nights on the two bus journeys). Tomorrow we’ll look around the area and go to a picnic we were invited to by a guy on the bus, and the day after we go for a trip to St Martin’s Island.

Oh, and my stomach is pretty much on the mend but I now have a headcold. Great.

Mongla, Khulna and back to Dhaka

Our very short stay in Mongla saw us wake up and head down to the dock with our guide. He owns (or at least operates) a boat, and we took a 2-hour rid into the Sundarbans, the largest littoral mangrove forest. In fairness, two hours is enough to get to the entrance to the area where you require a permit and then head back again. As a result, we saw more of the human life along the river’s edge than we saw in the way of wildlife. Apparently deeper in, there is a huge collection of fascinating creatures including Bengal tigers. Having said that, I did catch sight of a dolphin or something popping out of the water. I only caught two glimpses of this creature, so I’m not 100% certain what it was, but it was certainly big, grey and smooth enough to have been a dolphin and such animals do live in the area.

On returning to dry land, we collected our bags and were bundled onto one of the numerour local buses to get us up to Khulna, the largest city in the area. The journey was a little over an hour, and not too expensive although we had to pay for four seats due to the size of our rucksacks! The legroom left a little to be desired as well. Essentially, they’d measured the bus up for normal Bangladeshis (who seem to be about the same dimensions as myself) and then jammed an extra two rows of seats in. A family of Chinese pygmies could perhaps have travelled in relative comfort.

We had some time to spare in Khulns before our bus to Dhaka arrived, so we grabbed lunch at the Hotel Royal and attempted to use the internet connection at their business centre, but it broke. Outside the bus office, one young kid played hide and seek with us for about an hour after I gave him a packet of biscuits. At first he seemed pleased, then he realised he was getting them instead of cash, not as well as. Can’t blame him for trying, though.

The highlight of the day was Hans having the tables turned on him by a couple of beggars. A woman approached us with the usual baby in arms, miming for food and money while rattling off in Bangla (which, obviously, she seemed to think we’d understand). We made the usual “no Taka” gestures, while I pulled out my empty pocket lining to prove a point. She poked at my rucksack as if it was a cunningly disguised picnic hamper and wasn’t impressed when I showed her it contained a bundle of wires and a toothbrush.

Hans, however, did the usual “him Taka” routine, pointing at another Bangladeshi. Eventually, the beggar woman took pity on poor, penniless Hans… and handed him a 2Tk coin! She refused to take it back and it eventually ended up in the hands of another (very confused looking) female beggar. The crowd which had gathered were in stitches.

Our bus rescued us and we settled in for the comfy journey up to Dhaka. A good job the seats were good (including built-in massager) as it proved to be a much longer trek than we’d expected. Our arrival time was supposed to be around 8pm. Due to a holdup at a river crossing, we didn’t reach Dakah until almost midnight.

The bus station wasn’t too far from our hotel, but the first taxi driver was insistent that we pay him 200Tk for the trip. We tried haggling down to 150Tk. No? OK, how about 175Tk? No, OK, how about the taxi behind you? That guy instantly asked for 100Tk, a much fairer price. We jumped in while the first taxi driver called after us. Too late, pal. You had your chance.

A quick checkin and the hotel told us of a place to eat around the corner. Handy as we’d not eaten since Khulna. We just had rice, curried mixed veg and dall for two plus a couple of Cokes. No way could we finish all they gave us, and it was decent grub. The bill was a minute 74T – 50 pence, give or take. For two people. Unreal.

While we were eating, the staff had been spooning meals into little cardboard boxes and wandering outside with them. As we left, we saw a queue of beggars chowing down on the free food. Hans has worked in a lot of Muslim areas and this is apparently just part of the Muslim “code”. As well as giving some of your income to charity, giving food to the poor and welcoming travellers are also encouraged. Hence why Hans couldn’t go more then 100 yards in eastern Turkey without being offered a cup of tea!

We’d slept for ages on the bus – nothing else to do – so ended up sitting around till 1:30am to catch the Simpsons again. Worth the wait as it was an other episode neither of us had seen. Alarms set for 7:30, we finally nodded off.

Cruisin’

A pretty relaxing day, partly as there’s not a lot to do on a boat that’s ambling down a river. We slept quite late, being woken by the waiter knocking at our door around 10:00. Then we slept for another hour. Best night’s sleep in a couple of weeks, I think.

Breakfast was omelette and toast with some fish and chips on the side and a rather delicious cup of tea. Hans milled around the ship a little while I bulldozed through another Jack Reacher novel.

A small girl kept popping her head into our room and nattering away in passable English. At one point, she’d just seen a plane in the sky outside (a big one, I confirmed). Cute as the proverbial. It turns out she was a stowaway, having followed us onboard at Dhaka! The staff said they’d feed her and take her back up on the return trip. I think it’s fairly commonplace. Maybe she’ll grow up with the same urge to travel and a budget to go further – or the cheek to manage it on the sly!

There was also another white man on board. Our first non-Bangladeshi in Bangladesh! He was a Swedish man who’d just headed down from a trek in the hills with his guide who, it turned out, knew the chap we were to meet when we arrived at our destination.

Lunch was the same food as we’d had for dinner the night before and we sat and read, took photos and snoozed until around 7pm when we docked at Mongla.

In the near-darkness, we disembarked and sat on the back of a cycle-drawn cart while a young boy pedalled like bonkers to get us over the rough ground. I’d not like to come up against him in a kicking contest. he may have been small, but I reckon he could beat a mule into second place.

After a short ride, we stepped onto a boat to be taken across the river to the Hotel Pashur where we would be staying the night. It’s by far the poshest place in the area and still ludicrously cheap by western standards. OK, it’s still also rough and ready by western standards but it has comfy beds and a hot shower. What else do you need?

We ordered dinner and in the half hour wait for it to be served walked out of the main gates to walk around. There’s very little on this side of the river, so we settled on having a cup of tea (2Tk) and bought some biscuits and water for later on.

Dinner was pretty good – Hans going for enough rice and dall to feed three people (he almost finished it) while I listened to my recovering tummy and went for chicken schnitzel and chips. Pricewise, it’s fairly expensive for Bangladesh but that’s what happens when you eat in hotel restaurants.

With not a whole lot else to do, we made full use of the lovely hot shower and then sat and read for a bit before bed. Definitely a chilled-out day or so.

*slaps forehead*

I have found about the only cybercafe in Dhaka. The connection is fast and they have USB ports. I have posts written up for the last two days.

And I’ve forgotten to copy the file with them in onto my USB stick.

GAH!

No worries. I’ll update as and when (a couple of days from now, I think). But the important thing is I’m in Bangladesh, the trip was fine and there’s no rioting or anything daft! Exactly the opposite. The people here are bend-over-backwards helpful.

Catch you all soon!

The Dhaka rally

TV is evil. TV made me stay up to watch The Simpsons until after 2am. As such, I wasn’t as well-rested as I’d hoped by 8am when we had to get up. A rapid wash and pack were done before we dropped our bags in reception to be looked after.

A work colleague of Mahmud’s arrived shortly after 9:00 to show us around the city on a whistle-stop tour. First stop, however, was for breakfast. My stomach was much better but still not 100% so I only pinched a quarter of Hans’ spicy chicken pizza to settle myself before we hopped onto a rickshaw and were pedalled towards the Sadarghat (port). You can get three adults on a rickshaw fairly easily. I would recommend, though, that one of them doesn’t have a digestive disorder at the time.

Rickshaws aren’t the most comfortable way to travel but they’re fairly swift, convenient and incredibly environmentally friendly. Their only by-product is carbon dioxide from the guy pedalling and the stench of fear from the passenger. Compared to the deafening honking in most of India where cars, buses and autorickshaws compete for space in a “who’s horn is the loudest” competition, Dakha in places sounds more like a minature campanologists’ convention. *dring dring* *tinkle* *crunch* Oh, yes. Rickshaws don’t stop gracefully. It’s standard procedure to just thump into the one in front to ensure you’re as closely packed as possible.

We also encountered a silly money problem when trying to pay the rickshaw driver. The fare was 20 Taka. The smallest note we had was 100 and, of course, he didn’t have change. This is a really common issue in many countries, so as a rule try and get a bunch of small change as soon as you can. I’ve added this to the tips page. Fortunately, Mahmud’s friend paid (we ran a tally for the day and paid him back later) and we walked down to the riverside.

A small flotilla of equally small boats awaited us. Each manned by a single sailor with a single oar, these boats are used to ferry people and goods from side to side, or from larger ships to the portside. We boarded our chosen vessel, panicked, wobbled, sat, prayed, wobbled some more and let the oarsman take us out into the water. We were taken a fair distance up and downstream on the Buriganga watching river life take place. Huge boats moved up and down virtually submerged in the weight of their cargo, vessels akin to paddle steamers without the paddles battled to get to the dockside, families and random businessmen passed by. Workers shaped things or sat and played cards, women on the riverside laid plastic bags out to dry (I assume for recycling) and so on.

Something I’ve not encountered before but which Hans has is to be the centre of attention in another country. Simply, nobody travels to Bangladesh as a tourist much as they didn’t to Vietnam seven years ago when Hans was there. As such, a white guy and a (historic) Korean sat on a small boat makes for something to gawp at for the locals. We had a lot of people waving at us and smiling for photos so it became a challenge to get any non-posed shots unless we snuck up on them from the side.

The time passed pleasantly enough as we talked to our guide about his family, Bangladesh, cricket and football. After an hour or so, we returned to the water’s edge and paid the ferryman. It was slightly less than two pieces of silver – only 110Tk.

We had been dropped off a little further downstream than where we’d boarded. Our guide walked us through a busy dockside warehouse to the Ahsan Manzil or Pink Palace. This is a late 19th century palace now partially open as a museum. Entrance is a ludicrously small 2Tk (There are 140Tk to the pound!) though there is not a huge amount to see inside. One thing to note with Bangladesh is that, unlike India, it seems that foreigners pay the same as locals for the tourist attractions. Let’s see how long this lasts if more people start visiting!

Our next mode of transport was a horse and carriage. We sat for ages as it seems these vehicles only set off when they’re fully laden. Eventually, we set off. Then stopped. Moved a few yards. And stopped again. The traffic in Dhaka isn’t the best in the world, even though most of it is quite small and maneuverable! The carriage only took us partway to where we wanted to go, so again we did the 3-men-in-a-rickshaw trick and set off towards the university campus.

Dhaka University is famed for it’s Business Administration course (our guide had recently passed this) and has some interesting statues on the grounds.

Round the back of the university is the National Museum with the inviting entrance fee of 5Tk. Our guide had o get back to the office, so left us there with instructions on how to return to our hotel. I will try to get his name before I post this, but we’re both hugely grateful for his time regardless.

The museum is smaller than the Indian equivalent we visited in Calcutta, but is conversely of a slightly better quality – or at least is less dusty! Exhibits include Bangladeshi weaponry, art, animals, agricultural products and a section devoted to the Liberation War of 1971. In fact, there’s a whole separate museum dedicated to this event, but sadly we didn’t have time to visit that as well. This exhibit was the highlight for me, with some very harrowing items on display – including the bloodstained shirt of one freedom fighter who died wearing it.

One thing that hits home about how young Bangladesh is as a country is that the first ever Bangladeshi flag – handmade – is on display in the museum. The country is only two years older than I am! The bad thing is the flag seems to have aged better than me.

Hans and I ended up being exhibits ourselves, or so it felt. I swear more people were staring at the foreigners than were looking at the displays. I should have had a shower and put on my Sunday best.

Stomachs were beginning to gurgle (well, mine continued to gurgle – I made full use of the facilities at the museum while we were there) so we located ourselves a rickshaw and were pedalled speedily back to the hotel. Our rickshaw-wallah was a very honest man. We gave him 100Tk and he handed us back a fifty. Then another ten, when he realised we weren’t going to let him away with it. He was reaching for more notes, when we decided to let him keep the rest. The fare should have been 20Tk, but some people deserve a break.

The hotel helped us sort lunch as the restaurant next door only had a menu in Bangla. I stuck with some simple rice and veg while Hans wolfed down pretty much everything else on the table. Oh, I can’t wait to get my appetite back.

Our last task of the afternoon was to locate a cybercafe. This proved to be a not insignificant quest, but with the help of the hotel management, a keen rickshaw-wallah, several members of the public who happened to speak English and some luck we found one about 15 minutes’ pedalling away. A good connection as well, and they had USB ports. A shame I forgot to copy my blog posts to my USB key before we left the hotel. Gah. Still, I got some money stuff done online and cleared some emails which was the whole point. All for 30Tk per hour. Bargain.

On the rickshaw ride back, we spotted our first riot police of our visit. They were busy reading newspapers and looking bored. I told you all it was fine here since the caretaker government took over!

Bags shouldered, we decided to get two rickshaws to the dock. Hans did try hailing a taxi, but he gave the univeral facial expression for “Hell, no” when we mentioned Sadarghat. Given the traffic we encountered on the way there was bad enough for a three-wheeler, I can’t say I blame him for turning the fare down.

Once we were dropped off, the fun began. The fare to Sadarghat should be 20Tk per rickshaw. Hans had a 50Tk note and was indicating it was for the two drivers to share. Heads were shaken. “Hundred, hundred” they indicated. One hundred each. It was our turn to go “Hell, no!”.

We gathered quite a crowd as the “discussion” progressed. One young boy who spoke English kept trying to raise the price, obviously hoping for a kickback from the drivers if he got them an inflated price. Another local in a blue shirt stood our ground and argued that the going rate was much less and that the foreigner was being generous with 25Tk each.

Eventually Hans shouted “You are bad Muslims! You want 50Tk? Or you want nothing?”

“Eighty!”

Bad move. Money back in wallet, back turned, Hans stormed off.

It’s funny how as soon as the possibility of losing all the cash you’ve already worked for raises its head that you think maybe taking the correct fare isn’t such a bad idea after all. In fairness, there was never any real vitriol. Anyone watching could see the smiles on faces as the haggling went on. Sorry to say, but the Bangladeshis just haven’t got the hang of ripping off tourists yet!

We were at the dock again to catch our mode of transport for the next 24 hours – the rocket boat “Ostrich”. This vessel is to take us all the way to Mangla and we have a first class cabin in which to while away the journey. As we were sat in our comfy little dorm waiting for departure, Mahmud barged in! He had wanted to make sure we were OK, had enjoyed our morning and even brought some delicious savoury biscuits for us to munch on until dinner. I think he made it off the boat before we set sail – he certainly ran fast enough when he realised the engine had started…

The Ostrich is nice enough and the staff are incredibly helpful. Dinner was an option of English or Bengali food – I went for the former and Hans the latter. Both were really good. The beds are comfy and there’s electricity in the room (if you unplug the fan!) so I can get on with laptop work while Hans does his amazing snoozing trick. I swear, he’d sleep twenty hours a day and eat for the other four if he could.