Wines and tigers – no bears

The Sundarbans are one of Bangladesh’s jewels – a huge, World Heritage-protected expanse of forest that covers the southern delta where the Ganges, Brahmaputra, and all their tributaries finally meet the Bay of Bengal. The last few Bengal tigers roam around between the sparse beeches, butressed figtrees and shrubby undergrowth, swimming across the smaller creeks in a vast network of rivers. Deer, crocodiles, Ganges River dolphins, turtles, crabs, and an array of kingfishers and birds of prey all share the tigers’ home.

In April a group of my friends got together to spend a long weekend cruising down the river. Starting from Khulna, one of the country’s most southerly large cities, our old cruising boat chugged through the forests of the Sundarbans to the beaches at the mouth of the river, and back again. Awash with sunshine and duty-free cask wine, and breathing deep lungs full of clean air and greenery, we played board games, cards and ukuleles, slept on the roof of the boat, ate endless courses of fresh seafood, squelched through muddy mangroves, and searched for elusive tigers.

It’s beginning to feel a … bit … kinda … like Christmas?

I don’t know how I failed to see it coming, but in case you didn’t know, it’s Christmas Day tomorrow. There’s something about being in Dhaka that has deprived me any of the normal cues that would remind me to buy presents, put up a tree, cover my desk in tinsel, stockpile obscene amounts of food or otherwise empty my bank account. The supermarkets aren’t piping out cheesy Bing Crosby carols, the streets full of fairy lights are completely standard Bangladeshi decorations (so nothing out of the ordinary), and I have so far seen only two plastic deer in restaurant foyers. Christmas has come out of nowhere and it’s weird.

Like many people from the southern hemipshere, my idea of Christmas is a bit all over the shop. In theory, Christmas is about sleigh bells, mittens, and other things Julie Andrews likes to sing about, and while the festive seasons of my childhood were filled with the nostalgia of fake snow and pine trees, they were also defined by long days, endless swims at the beach, sunburn and paddlepops, and perfumed by a heady mix of sunscreen, mangos, frangipanis and pine needles.

In Dhaka, without the glaring sunshine and water-based fun of home, or the wintery wonderlandy cliche of Europe, I’m feeling a bit bewildered. What do you mean, it’s Christmas? I’m in a thin cardigan. I’m not remotely prepared to eat my weight in Terry’s chocolate oranges! I don’t even know where to source one!

At least people know that it’s a special time of year for us bideshis. We get a public holiday for “The Merry Christmas” as it’s commonly and adorably called, and my very sweet colleague Marium even gave me a Christmas present of some red and green earrings. A small minority of local people are Christian and celebrate themselves – Johnny, a friendly guy who serves at the counter of our work canteen, invited me to visit his family to celebrate – Bengali hospitality at its finest.

We do already have plans for Christmas day though – in a time-honoured expat tradition, we’re gathering together as each other’s substitute family to eat and drink and make merry. This year, that merriment will take place on a boat, floating about on the Buriganga River, just outside Dhaka. It seems fitting – we might not have all the traditions and trappings of home, but out on the water, sharing a homemade and crowd-sourced picnic, drinking the last of our duty free and wearing the hilariously ugly jumpers we found at the market, it’ll be a perfectly Bangladeshi Christmas.

Later…: Merry Christmas, everyone!

On a boat!

In the field: Kurigram after the flood

In September, the end of monsoon season, I went out into ‘the field’ (rural Bangladesh) to some of CARE’s beneficiary villages. Across Bangladesh’s riverine char regions, low-lying villages had been inundated by devastating flood waters. As the great Jamuna river swelled with rain and run-off from the Himalayan snow-melts, the farming community of Rahamatpur (in the Kurigram district in the northern part of the country) watched most of their land erode and disappear.

After almost three weeks of flooding, the waters had receded, leaving wide, muddy flats where there were once productive fields, grazing land and crops.  The high water mark is visible on the sides of flooded houses, and the crops that weren’t swept away show a deep brown line where the water has left them damaged.

I took a few photos while we were there. The villagers had been through a tough period but in between the short rainshowers, the sun was starting to show through the clouds.

Old Dhaka in the rainy season

The monsoon is nearly over. Here are a few snaps from Old Dhaka on our last trip downtown.

(hint: click on a pic to view as a slideshow)

Your Cox’s Bazar

[warning: really long post, but I promise there are pictures]

So the joke goes, ‘Where do you go if you’ve got a strange penis? Cox’s Bazar!’

A couple of weekends ago we flew down to the world’s longest beach to find out for ourselves what all the fuss and puns were about. Near the Myanmar border, Cox’s is a fishing town at the north end of a beach that runs all the way down the pointy bit of Bangladesh’s eastern tip.

down here

Down here.

We flew United. Even my Bangladeshi colleagues pulled concerned faces when I told them which airline we were going with – I quickly learned that when you’re told ‘it’s not that bad’ by a Bengali you should prepare yourself for certain doom.

After work, and a few beers down at the American club, one Canadian friend recounted a horror story about his experiences with United: ‘There was no air conditioning. It wasn’t helped by the fact that I had a hangover, but I actually passed out from the heat.’ Another friend chimed in to say that when he had flown United, they hadn’t shut the door – but they didn’t fly too high, so the air pressure wasn’t affected. ‘It was OK. I thought we were going to die at first, but really it was fine.’

Mother of God.

I was relieved to find when we got on the plane that there was a large yellow pipe pumping delicious, cool air conditioning into the cabin. No such terrible luck here. Now we just needed to keep the doors shut and everything would be fine.

Of course, I shouldn’t have counted my chickens – when we were all seated, the yellow umbilical cord to survival was ripped away from us and we started to slowly braise in our own sweat. The sense of impending disaster wasn’t helped when we were handed our in-flight snacks, which advertised opportunities for pilot training, no questions asked.

United Airways, Bangladesh

‘Fly your own Airline’? Thank you, but I’d really rather someone qualified was steering this thing

One hour and 376km later, we stumbled out onto the tarmac and caught a tuk-tuk to the Mermaid Resort (battery-powered tuk-tuks are more popular here than the usually ubiquitous CNGs). While our friends booked out the Mermaid Beach resort, we checked into the Mermaid Eco resort, dumped our bags and attempted to relax, despite being walking pools of sweat.

Taking it easy... but in 40 degree heat

Taking it easy… in 40 degree heat

The Mermaid is exactly what you would expect to happen if you described resort-quality beachside cabins and a laid-back surfer lifestyle to someone who had never experienced neither. The result: bamboo huts with names like ‘awesome cucumber’ and ‘liquid elephant’.

Liquid Elephant

Our hut’s name. Concerned about the local elephantine population’s bowel movements.

But there was a certain charm.

Eco Mermaid Resort

Not bad, Bangladesh, not bad.

smoothie bar.

smoothie bar. Just don’t ask for  smoothie, things get complicated when you do that.

Cute details.

Cute details.

The ‘beach’ is actually the ‘high-tide’ edge of a 2-km stretch of very flat, tidal sand, meaning that at low tide we couldn’t actually see the ocean…

drinks on the beach

low tide: drinks on the beach

gin gin gin

gin gin gin

The curly, local fishing boats sit in the river at low-tide.

Local fishing boats

Local fishing boats

Going fishing.

Going fishing.

We caught a smaller river boat (like the ones above) across to a different beach to go for a swim. Fully clad (leggings, long t-shirt), I was still a novelty, and as we walked down the beach past a small village, several pairs of watchful, cautious eyes followed us. The kids, on the other hand, who were having a great time using chunks of polystyrene as boogie boards, were very friendly and seemed completely thrilled to bits when we managed to squeeze out our meagre Bangla: ‘Salam alykum! Kemon achen?’ (Not sure our Bangla teacher would be so thrilled as this was all we could muster).

No pictures of the lovely kids, I’m afraid – I didn’t have my camera with me and as they were naked I could hardly post them here anyway!

Back on our side of the river, we walked down over the (very wide) beach to look for crabs. They were super shy but I managed to chase one away from the safety of available crab-holes and down the beach:

Crab hunting: Sebastien is real.

Crab hunting: Sebastien is real.

A few fishing shacks lined the beach:

love shack

love shack

At night we found these little pools of light along the beach, where people were panning through metal tubs of seawater the same way you’d look for gold. One of our friends had better Bangla than the rest of us and translated their conversation: apparently he was panning for tiny baby prawns, which they ship inland to be raised in prawn farms for 4 months before maturing and becoming delicious garlic-lime prawn snacks.

panning for prawns

panning for prawns

A group of 24 bideshis  was bound to attract a bit of attention, and more than once we wondered if the resort staff were actually following us around. We weren’t sure until we got home and someone noticed new photos going up on the Mermaid Beach Resort Facebook page, which conclusively proved the paparazzi activity:

stalker cam

Stalker cam 1

stalker cam 2

Stalker cam 2

stalker cam 3

Stalker cam 3

It’s hard to love a beach pretty much anywhere when you’re from Australia. We have all been spoilt for beaches, for wide open spaces and peace and quiet. But as far as a quick weekend away from the hectic chaos of Dhaka goes, Cox’s made a nice escape. Weird penises and all.