Get out every 3 months: top tips for escaping Dhaka

It’s pretty crazy here in Dhaka, and after a while it can all start to fray your nerves a bit: the constant beeping, the relentless traffic jams, the daily shock of poverty, haggling for everything, trying not to fall down holes in the street that lead to ominously murky drains, making complicated but daily ethical decisions about whether or not to give money to beggar kids… Ultimately, it amounts to just the stress of constantly being ‘on’ – of having to think differently, adjust yourself, adapt, be flexible. When you’re in a culture that’s so different to your own, your safety net of normal is stripped away.

Culture shock comes in many different forms, and here in Dhaka it’s often not what I’d call ‘shock’, but something quieter and more insidious – maybe erosion, or attrition. You think you’re fine, moving along from one day to the next, taking it in your stride and enjoying the constant stimulation of being somewhere new and different. And then one day, that’s it, you snap, you’re done. You lose your cool and suddenly you’re yelling at a rickshaw driver for trying to overcharge you, or you’re in a puddle of tears because someone at work didn’t say ‘thankyou’. The straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back is always insignificant and ridiculous – it’s something you deal with every day but suddenly you can’t handle it any more. And that’s when you know you need a break.

It’s a bit of a rule of thumb in the local expat community that to try to avoid these silly and often public meltdowns, you should get out of the city every three months. This doesn’t mean leaving the country (although a getaway to Kathmandu, Kolkata or even Thailand is pretty easy and affordable) – there are a few great places to head to for a couple of days in Bangladesh. Top of the list are:

  • Srimongal, the peaceful, green and hilly tea district in the north-east
  • The Sundarbans, the world heritage-listed wetland forests on the Bay of Bengal that house the famous Bengal tigers as well as the fascinating otter-fisherman
  • The Rocket, a colonial-era paddleboat that offers comfortable overnight trips down through the country’s huge river system
  • Cox’s Bazar, for a bit of beach time and some great seafood
  • Sonargaon (Panam), the medieval capital of Bengal and 19th Century colonial centre, just south of Dhaka

In the lead-up to Eid Ul Adha I had one of the famous Dhaka meltdowns, but luckily Ollie and I had some beautiful people from Australia coming to visit us, so we already had a few getaways planned. We ended up going to Nepal for 5 days and Srimongal for another 3 days, then coming back to Dhaka for Eid – posts to come!

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52 Portraits: Mamma-di

Mamme-diI’m not sure what CARE Bangladesh’s HR policy is for hiring drivers, but I have a suspicion they have a strong affirmative-action approach to hiring women: in a country where driving is one of the most universally male jobs, many of our work drivers are women.

This is Mamma. She works for CARE in our Cox’s Bazar office, down on the coast near Myanmar. She’s what Bengalis call ‘tribal’: she grew up in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, an area which is home to the many different indigenous ethnicities of south-eastern Bangladesh, and is still riven by the conflict begun during the country’s partition from India.

Mamma has the kind of charisma that makes everyone love her. She’s sunny and easy-going but also a bit kick-ass. We couldn’t talk much (my Bangla is still very basic) but I can’t tell you how fond I became of this woman over the week that she drove us around.

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.