A VERY WARM WELCOME TO BANGLADESH
Unannounced, we strolled into the Garo people’s dusty northern Bangladeshi village and were greeted like long-lost relatives. People emerged from their bamboo and mud dwellings covered by tin roofs to congregate around us.
In the blink of an eye, a few plastic chairs, a table, a pitcher of water, and some glasses materialized. Zia Islam, my Tours & Trips Bangladesh guide, was fielding a barrage of inquiries about who I was and why I was in Bengali. We then shared some tea and biscuits while chatting and having a good time. Just like being at home.
“Our people are the attraction, not the Taj Mahal or any of our other tourist trappings,”
BANGLADESH IS FOR NEW EXPERIENCES
He noted wistfully that Bangladesh is not a tourist destination, and then added, “It is only visitors yearning for new experiences who come here, and what they discover is the people of Bangladesh.”
After getting away from Dhaka’s insanity, I began to understand what Zia had meant about the Bangladeshi people.
Dhaka’s old city is a must-see, offering a magnificent surge of throbbing human activity in one of the world’s most densely populated and polluted environments, but once you leave the city, you’ll find a quite different atmosphere.
Throughout my several weeks spent traveling by car, boat, and train around Bangladesh, I was warmly welcomed by the curious, friendly, and often gazing citizens of this poor and congested country.
Zia asked if I wanted to come up to the bridge on the hydrofoil we were taking from Dhaka to the southern port of Barisal, the bustling gateway to the riverine water world of southern Bangladesh.
When I answered that I would, he said, “That’s not allowed, but they will never say no to you since you’re a tourist to our country.”
After knocking on the bridge door, I was let inside and given a seat next to the captain, who did not speak English.
THE WIDEST RIVERS I’VE EVER SEEN
Silently, we navigated the biggest rivers I’ve ever seen, with no bank in sight at times, dodging giant water hyacinth growths and contending with rusting barges and cargo ships carrying bundles of rice.
An hour away from the hustle and bustle of Barisal, in the peaceful and idyllic countryside of rice paddies, mango and papaya trees, grazing goats, and large ponds, lies Karapur, home to the 15th-century Mia Bari, a standout among Bangladesh’s colorful red mosques with ornate silver-gray relief work.
After viewing the mosque, we walked into the hamlet and were greeted with the traditional Muslim “assalamwalaikum,” which quickly immersed us in the inhabitants’ life and kindness.
What is your name? The question everyone wants to know: “Where are you from?” How about your marital status? I was wondering if you could tell me the total number of your kids. Just what do you do for a living?
They were inquisitive as to why I was there in their hamlet but seemed uncertain about the concept of “I’m just a tourist.”
Zia remarked on their sincere hospitality. Nothing from you is what they seek. Since you’ve arrived in their community, the locals are doing everything they can to make you feel at home. To that end, they provide a seat, some water, and eventually some tea and food. They’ll feel worse if you don’t take it.
The elder of the village, who sported the traditional orange henna dyed hair of the men of this region, even offered me his psychoactive chew: he shaved betel nut on a large green leaf, added a pinch of tobacco, smeared a finger of lime (hydrated calcium oxide), folded it up into a small square, and handed it to me.
He eagerly popped it in his mouth when I politely declined.
We ended up enjoying milk tea and cookies in a circle in the outdoor kitchen next to the pond after they showed me their humble living and sleeping quarters and pointed me the leaky roof.
Zia remarked, “If you stay and drink tea with them, it means a lot to them.”
Located in the slopes above Srimangal’s tea estates, Lowacharra National Park is an enchanting swath of tropical semi-evergreen forest that is home to an astonishing variety of flora and fauna.
We saw everything from blue-winged Indian Rollers and Crested Tapin Eagles to pig-tailed macaques and barking deer.
The hoolock gibbon, unfortunately, is the region’s most fascinating endangered species. The park ranger, Eusuf, took it upon himself to locate and show us some gibbons after I remarked how much of a thrill it would be to see them.
As we hiked, he strained to hear a call he recognized as the language of hoolock gibbon families.
He stopped suddenly, ears pricked up, and we ran frantically through the forest after them, climbing hills and fording streams while we listened and oriented ourselves every so often.
After about half an hour, Eusuf gave up, saying, “I can’t do this,” and that the calls were getting softer and farther away.
But the irony was satisfying in the end. When we were leaving the park via the exit road, Eusuf slammed on the brakes, sending us scurrying back into the woods.
Then, high above us, we witnessed two families of monkeys—golden-brown females and darker males and young—swinging gracefully from branch to branch in a sight that would remain with us forever.
Eusuf beamed with delight as he told me he had located gibbons for me. They hid out in the thick of the woods and eventually came out along the road at the park’s perimeter.
We visited the Hindu village of Kuriana on our way through the network of rivers, creeks, and canals that cuts through the Banaripara region of southern Bangladesh on our way to the country’s largest timber market at astonishing Nesarabad, where a sea of hard-wood logs is strewn along the muddy banks of the Sandhya River.
An easy “no-mohsh-kar” welcome was all that was needed:
The shopkeeper at the teahouse chatted us up while she prepared our order and brewed a pot of her signature herbal and spiced blend.
The educator warmly welcomed us to visit his classroom. They showed us their modest cottages and the flower seeds they were sowing for a Hindu celebration, and several Hindu women brought out seats, scurried for mobile phones, and we all posed for photos.
A woman pleaded with us to visit her home so that we may try some of her coconuts.
IT WAS ALL SMILES AND MAKING NEW FRIENDS
During a three-day voyage into the heart of the Sundarbans, the M.V. Zerin carried only myself and twenty-five other Bengalis.
As we navigated the intricate network of waterways where the largest mangrove forest on Earth meets the world’s largest tidal basin in the Bay of Bengal, we were greeted with smiles and new friends.
We saw many spotted deer while exploring by small boat and on hikes in dry areas among the mucky mangrove swamps, but other than that, all we saw were brief glimpses: the back of a dolphin appearing and then disappearing; a Crested Serpent Eagle swooping away; a terrapin turtle poking his face out of the water for a quick view before submerging; a spectacular Greater Racquet-Tailed Drongo.
The big animal sighting expectation, a Bengal Tiger, was not fulfilled.
On board, Simon adopted me and became my translator, guide, and best friend; thoughtful Sium constantly presented philosophical concepts to discuss; and many others sidled up to test their little English and make friends.
In the end, though, it was all about Picture Day! On the final day of the voyage, before we docked, every single person, couple, and family on board wanted a photo with me, the lone American, to commemorate their time on the ship.
The people of Bangladesh are avid amateur photographers. It has the makings of a national pastime. A lot of people across the country took my picture. Moreover, they not only don’t mind, but actively seek out, being photographed.
Zia was becoming irritated with me because I kept asking if I needed to get permission beforehand. He warned me to “never ask” before taking images of anyone, saying, “Just take their photos.”
In the end, I understood what he meant, and I snapped away at will, making a pictorial record of the lively experiences I had in joyful Bangladesh, made all the more memorable by the kind welcome I received from its people.