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Sylhet to Shrimangal


I had to keep the window open that night which was normally precluded by mosquitos, but the eye watering repellant coils perversely proved the greater enemy. I lay listening to the incessant chinking of construction work throughout the night and as ever left it to the last moment to stuff an excellent brekkie down my neck and grab a rickshaw for the station. I could see that it had rained in the night for good measure. I ran across the tracks to the waiting Paharika Express whose platform I'd fortunately had the foresight to pre-ascertain and true to form, the train pulled away as soon as my bum hit the seat. My first experience of Bangladeshi Railways, that had been reason enough for the trip, but unusually the train was also reputedly a tad quicker than the buses for the 2 hour trundle to Shrimangal. This was allegedly one of Bangladesh's most scenic areas, dominated by low undulating hills covered by great tracts of tea plantations. The train, though standard rickety subcontinental stock, was fortuanately not the cattle market I had feared and the open carriages with comfy armchairs were certainly a pleasant change from plasticky compartmentalised ones. The usual procession of hawkers was supplemented it seemed by official food porters balancing trays of paper clad snacks, it was rustic but a good service. Curiously, just short of Shrimangal at a spot known as Shamshernagar I spied a brightly painted red and yellow Fouga Magister trainer aircraft by the adjacent road, I had no idea why it should be way out here. Launched straight into cheeky faced mites proferring outstretched hands, I was sad to see that compounding the overcast skies were muddy streets. My intended cycle tour out to the tea plantations, tribal villages and nearby gibbon populated forest reserve was quickly scuppered in any case when I discovered the local tour agency reputedly hiring bikes had closed down. It perhaps proved a blessing in disguise however as the black cloud steadily builded, let out a distant peel of thunder and then the heavens let loose. Having settled for a short jaunt out of town by foot instead I was very lucky to chance upon a sizeable bus shelter in the middle of nowhere, whereupon immediately rain proceeded to hammer down so hard that it bounced back up off the road. It could only mean one thing, the monsoon. I hadnt even considered that it might be a factor in Bangladesh but in checking out the weekly forecast for soon to be Bangkok, I learned that it was predicted to be persistently cloudy and wet. This short taster was enough to convince me I might have to radically alter my plans. Whilst the downpour lasted only 20 minutes, the day in general was no good for photography or staying clean. Roads would turn to mud, rivers would rage and locals would shut up shop. Despite not being able to reach beyond Shrimangal and there being no attractions in town as such, there was always something of interest along the way. I stumbled upon an old Morris 1000 now completely gutted inside and out except for the nose badge and speedometer. I managed to make the boys in the repair yard understand that it had quite possibly come to be there off one of my dads Merchant Navy ships. It was a younger model with the side indicator recesses skinned over. I also spied in the passing a trailer marked Finlay's, one of the major tea producers in the area, and indeed I snapped more happy faces unloading humungous sacks of the stuff in town. Soon after I also got accosted by a large ape faced man who introduced himself as the local represenative of the Borak tribe. His tempting invitation out to one of the villages was tempered by his eye glazing desire to secure a visa sponsorship letter out of me.

Allah must have been looking after me that day though since I had only just got back into the shelter of the town when the downpour started again, this time complimented by full on thunder and lightning and the normally crowded streets miraculously emptied bar a few unfortunate drenched rickshaw wallahs. As the rain rescinded the air became filled with large strange 4 winged insects instead, and I thought I could discern due to their ungainly flight that these were a species which had lain dormant in wait of the rain in order to breed fleetingly on the wing then die. Trying to salvage something from the day I took advantage of the reprieve by bagging an overdue haircut, my first since Iraq, and burning photos to CD with guidance from a local primary school teacher, one of the few Bengalis I'd met with good English. That was soon matched though by one of the whizzkids at the photo lab who upon enquiry explained that due to a new dictatorial government directive, the net cafes werent allowed to stay open after 7pm. That surely explained why they always seemed to be closed then, in losing their prime time Big Brother had quite succinctly managed to put them out of business.

Its as well to note now that today in diminutive Shrimangal of all places I chanced upon a second English language newspaper, Bangladesh Today. The headlines apart from predictably featuring the Tigers farings against Sri Lanka in the cricket, were a dig in the ribs from Commonwealth Secretary General Don McKinnon who urged that "the suppression of political party activities should be lifted without unnecessary delay". The "Emergency Committee", the de facto government were allegedly playing "a delay game". He balanced the criticism by "castigating the political parties for their narrow, partisan and winner-take-all politics which has dogged Bangladesh for a long time.....the welfare of the whole nation must come before party or self". Another article explained how a Bangladesh National Party cadre aged 32, listed as a terrorist and extortionist "fell sick during interrogation" and died in hospital. It mirrored what many Bengalis had been keen to instruct me, that there was no game of good guys v bad guys here, only bad guys ever managed to attain any power. With hours to kill before the night train to Chittagong I chanced upon the interesting covered market a tad too late to see it in full vigour, where I was also approached by a guy pushing tours. It turned out it was the boy I had hoped to hire a bike from upon arrival but sure enough, as another friendly tout had dubiously assured me, he had moved to Dhaka and was only back in Shrimangal incidentaly. A strange quirk though. I also chanced upon the Shrimangal Foreigners Liquor Store which I would not have noticed had it not taken pride of place in what had once been the grand hallway of a very fine Roman collonaded building, it proferred a few antique cabinets with a meagre collection of whisky, rum and gin at foreigner prices, though there could never normally be any foreigners around. Amazing to find it here, and it smacked of hypocrisy in that it could not even be admitted as serving local patronage.

At the station, the company transmorphed from croaking frogs, prolific mosquitos and fireflies to a surge of fellow incumbants hell bent on boarding the train despite half the Bangladeshi Border Security Force in their garish DPM combats trying to get off. There was a frantic yet somewhat organised egress as they threw countless bedding rolls and kit bags out of the windows and piled rifles in a neat rank. Another friendly approach here came from a local banker with good English, most fortuitously he was travelling in the same indecipherable carriage as me and so I got held back until the apppropriate moment for the lunge onboard and chaperoned to my seat. With 1st Class having been booked out, Pleb Class turned out to be respectable enough but on hardish upright benches not very conducive to sleep. One of my fellow sufferers was Malik, a guy of similar age who was a migrant worker doing the family rounds after returning home from Dubai. Malik epitomised 2 of Bangladesh's occasionally endearing traits. If they spoke any degree of English then you frequently received answers which were wholly inappropriate to the question you had asked, and also the determined desire to be helpful which bordered on the overbearing. With the vague notion of continuing promptly to Cox's Bazar, Malik forced a spicy breakfast on me and had me on a rickshaw to the bus stand before I could consider any plan to the contrary. So that was it then, Cox's Bazar it was!

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Bangladesh

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