Today we learn that our spending power in Bangladesh may not be that of the super-rich but we’re up there, you don’t have to be super-rich to be happy and just having support agencies in town injects extra well-appreciated money into the local economy.
We leave the hotel and head to Cafe 14 for the Pilgrim’s tea infusion and my early morning coffee hit then it’s out to lasso a tuktuk which is not difficult, out here they’re ready to pounce at even the smallest show of interest. There’s a short discussion as we try to establish our intentions. The discussion seems to be around what we mean by the ‘old town’. In order to help, we mention the ‘Lighthouse’ which seems to be a landmark and easy walking distance to the market area of the ‘Old Town’ that we really would like to visit. Even though it’s referred to with this label on the map the tuktuk drivers seem unaware of its existence. That said, we have found them pretty vague when it comes to anywhere more than 500 metres from where they operate. After more discussion and lots of arm gesturing the penny drops and we’re on our way… to the wrong place!
We turn off the main road and I’m following progress on Google Maps so when the little blue marker that represents my iPhone turns right off the street and onto a narrow track that begins to ascend I’m a little concerned.
We go further and he stops, there’s a pause then he gesturing up the track as if the Lighthouse is up there, sort of, vaguely, in the distance i.e. he’s completely at a loss and wants to escape the embarrassment. He’s not being unscrupulous or leaving us in any danger, they’re not that inclined; however, there’s good and bad in all so we’re being a bit careful. As we’re discussing where we are and where we’d really like to be, I’m showing him the map when the Pilgrim says, “maybe he can’t read English”
That’s very probable; however, we agree that what could also be possible is that he can’t read at all.
Just as we’re about to cut our losses and ask to go back to town a little girl of about four appears. Initially, she’s playing in birthday-suit but when she sees us she disappears and within a couple of minutes she reappears clothed in pretty dress and in tow is her dad. They walk a few yards then she panics as she sees that there are other people and not just the tuktuk driver. Dad lets her hand go and he continues forward.
“Can I help?”, he asks. We’re in the middle of nowhere in a wonderful Asian country on an off-road track and a man from a nice little residence sitting in a little patch of land with a few vegetables and fruit tree strides out and speaks English. It turns out he’s in the Bangladeshi Navy and patrols the Straights for pirates which were an issue ten or so years ago and still have the potential to be but the authorities seem to have a grip on it now and he’s one of the people to whom we should be grateful.
“We’re trying to get to the Lighthouse”, then we pause and assess our chances of getting to the market and say, “Actually, we’d really like to get to Barmis Market”
There’s a brief exchange and the tuktuk driver seems to be getting the message and with a cheery wave to our saviour from the humble dwelling in the palms and his little helper who can now go back to au naturel.
The tuktuk driver sets off with new confidence and we exit the track onto the road to rejoin the traffic and mayhem.
I’m back on Google Maps following the dot which is now heading in the direction we expect and within 20 minutes we’re happy; then, between him showing us that we can get out now and us saying we’d like to get out, there’s a mutually agreed dismount followed by payment and then we’re off.
We’re on a kind of Main Street and it stinks. Over the other side of the road is a dried fish stall and it’s only on our return along this stretch that we realise it’s a discrete dried fish market but I’ll come to that.
As Europeans, one of whom is dressed in long shorts and the other six foot two with silver hair means we’re noticed immediately and offers of help come thick and fast with the odd request for a selfie thrown in – we comply with a smile but reject the offers of help; they’re inevitably going to take us to their brother/partner/son/ brother-in-law or friend’s shop or arcade and the hard sell is too tedious to put up with so we refuse. The response tends to be a look of abject disappointment the like of which is impossible to recover from… until the next one. In our case, the next one could be in weeks so we are something of a loss.
We turn off the ‘main street’ and head down a narrow side street, there isn’t much room but the odd tuktuk and rikshaw manage to negotiate their way past all of the buckets, brooms, pick-axes, fruit and vegetables without damage to either stall or vehicle. There rarely seems to be disastrous consequences to any of these off-street adventures but there’s always the potential.
The women are quite modestly dressed in these parts. They move about with a gate that’s so smooth and effortless it’s as if they’re on wheels. I find it hard not to look initially. Some of them have no exposed skin whatsoever with a tiny gauze over the eye slit in the headgear and a long black loose-fitting dress with leggings, socks and shoes. Others are wearing beautifully coloured long sari type dresses that look like there is a knack to their management. For some, it’s draped over their arm and others like a long loose fitting evening gown. There are quite a number of younger ladies who are in modest clothing but brightly coloured headscarves. Finally, a few of the ladies are in more western clothing but they’re in the minority. I take a little more time to describe the ladies and their clothes as the men are all in ’T’ shirt and shorts or casual shirt and jeans not really conducive to an extended descriptive dialogue; however, in terms of comfort, they look like they’ve got the better deal.
We’re in a very small dog-legged back street and find our way into a little bazar where only materials and a few clothes are sold. The Pilgrim makes her way into a little booth that has a small group of ladies one with quite a conservative hijab and the others are wearing scarves but with their faces in full view and they’re smiling. One of them is taking a sneaky picture of the big European bloke with silver hair. The Pilgrim manages some limited exchange and there are a few smiles as the broken English is attempted and, on the whole, successful.
The girl that had taken the surreptitious picture now takes one of both of us and I ask if I can take one of them with the Pilgrim, they say yes but it’s not unanimous and the one with the least revealing head-scarf raises the face-covering element and turns her back so I take a couple of snaps and by the time she turns again the camera is away and she’s not under any perceived threat.
As we leave the bazaar the men in it wave and say, “Good afternoon” and a couple of the younger girls raise a hand (not an arm) and move their fingers like a shy child would, it’s all delightful and good humoured.
The bazaar is behind us now and we dodge a couple of rickshaws and a tuktuk. Who knows how they got down this tiny street, it’s a mystery but their physical presence is testament. As we reach the end of each street another tiny alley opens up and eventually, a wider ‘B’ road is offered to us to get back to the main street where Gentle Park Is trading and we go in. It’s clear that it’s aimed at the well-to-do and in Bangladesh, that includes us. The prices are what my Mam would have called ‘top-end-ish’ but the quality is in the same band. After some discussion I attempt to buy a shirt, I’m ‘L’ in the UK 42 inch chest so I go for the ‘XL’ here purely because all of the shirts that are ‘L’ look snug. I think they call them muscle fit in Europe and probably ‘XXS’ or very petit in the USA. I go to the changing room and it won’t even cross my shoulders. I make another recce of the premisses ably assisted by a team of shop staff who know when they’re on a winner. ‘XXL’ it is then, bit uncomfortable but so be it … No!
Another jog around the shop and back into the changing room, ‘XXXL’ It’s shouting from the label. The assistant reassures me that the sizes are different for this market. Hmmm! It’s still too snug.
Final recce, they have two shirts in the shop at ‘XXXXL’ and I have them both in the changing room, bingo, they both fit and I buy one. Still a bit uncomfortable about having THAT label advertising my girth at ‘XXXXL’ I don’t think I’m in denial but maybe I’ll need to watch them carbs.
We make our way out of the shop rolling up the bag that’s advertising our registration into the super-rich of Bangladesh and begin walking down the street towards the road that had brought us in. We pass the fish market that we’d olfactorily detected a little earlier, it still stinks but not quite as bad as earlier and the irony is that we’re closer. The dried fish are cut into various shapes and some are almost sculptures with a structural window into their inner parts, a kind of Dr Gunther von Hagens of the Piscean world and if you haven’t been to one of his body exhibitions you’re really missing something; but do beware!
We hold our breath and when the odour begins to subside we call a tuktuk for the return journey only this time, surprise, surprise, he knows where it is.
We’re dropped at the Mermaid Cafe which hasn’t yet been approved by the Red Cross/Red Crescent so Frank is unable to join us! It’s a lovely garden cafe with clean toilets and excellent service and food so we spend a pleasant hour discussing our little ‘run out’ then a walk down the beach where we make some photos of us splodging in the Bay of Bengal then being mobbed by enthusiastic Bangladeshis eager to get a selfie with the ‘Europeans’.
“What is your country?”, they ask and we reply, “England”, their response is inevitably a list of cricketers and their scores in various matches across the years…
Life is a wonderful adventure and we’re certainly having an adventure. My affection for these priceless, smiling, welcoming people is profound and their willingness to share their country without pressure or intimidations is a delight.
Enjoy the snaps. Love…G..x