In a somewhat rash fit of ruthless efficiency I made the radical move of ditching a lot of my gear today. With the advent of assuredly persistent hot weather from now on, out went my now much too heavy cargo breeks purchased in Esfehan, my jacket which perversely had been made in Bangladesh and most notably to me, a trusty cream cotton safari shirt which had been my default travelling apparel for at least 14 years, it was still in perfect nick. The hat and gloves went the same way without any such deliberation. I was taking a chance in that you could never be sure when you might hit a cold or wet patch or go without a laundry for weeks, but the saving in bulk and weight seemed to legitimise it. Clothes were cheap in this part of the world anyhow, it was an important edict on the road to be ready to adapt and my gear was no different. Another benefit of Bangladesh is that the guidebook is suitably pocket sized compared to the commensurately weighty volume required for mighty India, and the Indian Railways timetable I ditched was no paltry booklet either.
I strutted down Sudder Street for the last time carrying little more than a daysack, past the now familiar rickshaw wallahs and pavement dwellers, headed for Esplanade and the quirky tram to Sealdah Station. Such was the sprawl of Calcutta that the train for the 2 and a half hours out to Bangaon resembled a suburban commuter service, where a crush of humanity sat and stood cheek by jowl, hawkers endlessly squeezing through the morass to profer wares of all ilks. There was a place for all kinds on this planet and some here spend their days simply endlessly meandering with a handfull of fruit or dubious spicy concoctions, doling out the same relentless mantra. It is perhaps worthy now to note the special place Indian women have in sealing India's charm. Consistently petite with very small delicate features and delicious necks, they have an elegance which transcends any lacking in education or traditional concept of manners. Eye contact is a favour they ration which only adds to their dignified demeanour. They are stunning.
Escaping the city, West Bengal was revealed to be a highly arable patchwork of sugar cane and banana plantations, with small red roofed shacks adding to a palm treed idyll reminiscent of Goa. Upon arrival at Bangaon I spotted a Japanese guy disembarking and knew where he had to be heading, after an easy money change we jumped in a share rickshaw for the short trip to the border where perhaps due to a genuine misunderstanding we felt we were getting ripped off. Onboard, a chatty Bangla guy with good English took a shine to me and in spite of my cautious reservations proved helpful in negotiating the hurdles of the crossing. During a short separation, a class act chancer still managed to try his luck though, I clocked the guy early on due to my experience at the Pakistan-India border and the helpful "official" proved to be just an anonymous parasite on the make. Most probably in cahoots with the soulless, corrupt bona fide ne'erdowells, we sat out a needless delay at immigration after having turned down the "quick service". We put our clocks forward 30 minutes anyway. Duly stamped out, the customs official was more interested in bagging any spare British coins I had than checking my bag, and so we exited India to walk straight into the life of a carbon copy Bangla pretender. I succinctly shook him off but only after I'd scored an embarkation form out of him, touchee! After a passport check by friendly Bangla soldiers in crisp olive fatigues and garish DPM combats, Bangla customs were similarly disinterested in my smell laundry and the entry stamp was a doddle. We plumped for a cheaper cycle rickshaw this time to the bus stand but ended up having to walk half of it anyway as the road was blocked with trucks 5 abreast, curiously pointing into Bangladesh yet beyond the formalities.
Immediate impressions were of a people obviously poorer and lesser educated, there was only 1 car amongst the melee of cycle rickshaws and bikes, and gormless characters demandng bakhsheesh were scruffily and scantily clad. The most notable differentiation from India however was that the habitual "hello" chorus was now obviously a sincere and friendly outpouring, they were simply captivated at the sight of rare exotic foreigners. On the bus we first encountered an audience of well intended stares, even from some now obviously muslim women which was most unusual. They knew they werent supposed to but couldnt help themselves, even if it meant turning round in their seat. The guidebook had also forewarned me of what would very quickly become an amusing familiar set format of inquisitive probes, it always started with "Which country?", then your name, "where you go?" etc. At once intensely proud of their young country yet disappointed and apologetic for its considerable shortcomings, they all obviously wanted our experience of it to be favourable. All that is apart from the bus crew. Checking the fare after suspiciously not being proferred any change, I was quoted a bullshit "foreigner price" and really gave them both barrells and threatened the police. Their grudgingly thrusted fistfull of Taka was enough to pay the 2nd bus after a quick change at Jesshore. Comprised of in the main by part of the Gangetic Delta, one of the worlds greatest river systems, Bangladesh proved to be a remarkably pretty carpet of sugar cane, bananas, wheat and more than anything rice paddies, it would have resembled a giant billiard table had it not been for periodic clumps of palm trees. It was dark by the time we poured out onto the streets of Khulna, where a cycle richshaw guy tried his luck in taking us to his hotel of choice not ours, a no nonsense verbal prod was required. Acceptably grungy, it was the first place I had seen with mosquito nets as standard and in keeping with Bangladesh's ropey economy it proved to be the cheapest bed of my trip to date. Whilst Ken opted for the cheap as chips 50 Taka bed, I opted for an en suite and shelled out a laughable 75, about 60p.
In search of something approaching food, we saw how Bangladesh doesnt so much have power cuts as random short bursts of power provision, you had to dodge an endless onslaught of cycles in the pitch black streets. Some dangled tiny lanterns underneath but many didnt, you were bombarded with the nonetheless charming tinkle of bells akin to an ice cream van. Such was the dearth of services beyond fruit stalls and sweet sellers we had to ask some bored policemen for directions to a restaurant, where you had a choice between either meat curry with rice or rice with meat curry. So thats what we had. I did manage to vary it with a request for bread whereby a guy with a bit of English explained the hitherto encountered farce that rice and bread didnt mix, not that crap again I thought. Later in bed another test was a vain attempt at writing, whereby I pained at the persistence of mosquitos which seemed to be able to hone in on the slightest of holes in the mossie net and invade within. What didnt help either was the heat factor which saw my sweat saturated torso fill up my belly button until the pool would spill over onto the sheets, and I once again became aware of rock bottom living.