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.

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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.

52 Portraits: The chai wallah

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Down by the river in Mymensingh, the sun has just set and the ferries are coming in. In the dark street next to the jetty, families and tradesmen gather alongside the goats and fig trees to enjoy a cup of malai cha – a super sweet, creamy tea made by over-boiling milk and mixing tea and ‘chini’ (sugar) with the thick cream that forms on the top.
Before I can stop him, Sainuddin drops three heaped teaspoons of chini into my tiny cup, before pouring a few drops of strong black tea and whisking in a scoop of cream. I might wind up with diabetes but I won’t lie, it’s delicious.

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)