Darjeeling is famous for the little blue “Toy Train” that runs on an 18 inch wide track gauge. I opted for the shared jeep from Siliguri since the train takes nine hours for the sixty mile trip. Most of the people here are Nepali and it feels like a different world from two hours ago down in the plains of India. Passed through some tea plantations and many billboards with advertisments for boarding schools. No coincidence that friends Salman and Mesbah from Dhaka both went to school in Darjeeling. Many of the schools were started by British missionaries over one hundred years ago and it’s a visual disconnect to see the modern- looking students walking alongside the Nepalese porters who live very close to the earth. It’s really nice to escape the noise pollution of Dhaka in this quiet town of about 90,000. There aren’t that many travelers here and after 7 pm the streets are deserted.
Woman’s demonstration for Ghurkaland, Darjeeling
The Ghurka’s have been involved in a long bitter struggle with the government of India and West Bengal for a separate state. On my third day thousands of woman arrived in town on buses and staged a demonstration. Many also sat along the road on a twenty four hour hunger strike. Since Darjeeling is close to borders with China, Nepal and Bhutan it’s doubtful that the Indian government will give in to their demands. Still the Ghurka’s are a formidable force. More than 200,000 fought in the two world wars and in the past fifty years, they have served in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Borneo, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kosovo and now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The name “Gurkha” comes from the hill town of Gorkha from which the Nepalese kingdom had expanded
The North Bengal / India border in Burimari was one of the quietest places I’ve seen. The emigration officer was busy watering the trees outside the hut as I approached. Because all of the buses between Dinajpur and the border were not “gate locked” (see previous post). I hired a driver- thanks Mesbah- for the 100 mile trip. Otherwise it would have involved over seven hours of very local buses. Besides it gave me the chance to call my wife. The landscape was pastoral with hardly any motorized transportation in sight. Only rickshaws and people drying grain on the pavement.
From the border there was another two hours to Siliguri. The hub for transport to Darjeeling. There was a strike up in Ghorkaland so I had to spend the night in Siliguri regardless. The smells and color brought back memories from my last time in India many years ago. In the morning at the bus station a man aproached. He looked like a vendor but looks can be deceiving. It turns out he was an English literature professor at the local university and had recently finished his PHD on the relationship between the writing of Salman Rushdie and multiculturalism. We shared a cup of tea before I got back to photographing the spectacle before my eyes.
Beautiful eleven hour train ride up to Dinajpur, close to the India border. It was nice to get “off the road” from the blasting horns and watch the landscape of green and yellow mustard fields go by. At the train station a man waits for me with a flower. It’s Siful, the driver who takes me back to NGO where I’ll be staying for five days. Mesbah is a student at IUB and his mother’s family runs Aloha Social Services of Bangladesh. She has been a woman’s activist for over twenty years. The name of the NGO was inspired by some of the doctors who come over from Hawaii every year to provide medical care. They also partner with a German NGO called Shanti. This region is one of the poorest parts of the country.
‘Local” buses in North Bengal
I wasn’t planning to be in Bangladesh for all of the cow sacrifices but ended up celebrating Eid-Ul-Azha. with Mesbah and family. We took a few side trips to Thakurgaon and Saidpur and there learnt the important meaning of the word “gate lock”. The only problem was that all of the buses in the area were not “gate locked” so they stopped every other mile to pick up and stuff in as many passengers as possible.
A few weeks ago I met Harold Rashid and was invited to accompany him to visit his families estate in Sylhet. Harold is a renaissance man: an artist, educator, musician and recently performed in two films. In 1990 Harold founded “Anandaniketan” (Happy School) so his boys would have a place to learn without going abroad to England as he did. His sister Fahmeena currently serves as the administrative director and there are now over 700 hundred students from pre-school to the 12th grade attending. It was a heart warming experience to visit the school and see such a high level of quality and care. That same evening there was a three hour poetry recital contest in English and Bangla.
Shah Jalal Mazaar
I spent a good part of my time near Harold’s home at the Shrine of Shah Jalal, a pilgrimage site for the 14th century Sufi saint and a contemporary of Rumi. I just happened to be there on the day of his anniversary and their were thousands of his followers from all over Bangladesh. The atmosphere and music reminded me of the Lalon festival in Kustia.
Sylhet is known for being the most prosperous region of the country and contains the largest number of Bangladeshi immigrants living in England. It was calming to be outside of Dhaka…. to breath some fresh air and gaze at some of the tea estates in the area.
Early this morning Salman and I took a ferry boat along the Buriganga river to the town of Narayanganj It was calming to sit on the upper deck and watch the view especially since the skies have cleared the past week and temperatures have slightly dropped. We saw many brick factories along the way looking like phallic totems. Smaller boats transporting sand and bricks plyed the river. I had heard that Narayanganj is known for it’s weavers but all we saw were garment factories- some very modern looking on the outside- lining the road. Upstairs in one of the dark allyways filled with smaller tailor workshops we talked with young boys who were sewing designs and lettering on “designer” tee-shirts. The same story is heard over and over again. People migrating from the villages flocking to urban areas to find work. In this case the boys were given food and lodging and only small monetary compansation a few times a year.
On the bus back to Dhaka from the Lalon celebration in Kustia
Jonathan has become a good friend here in Dhaka. He was born in Bangladesh but moved to the States when he was 14 years old. He returned to Dhaka two years ago to look after his parents and keeps delaying his return back to the east coast where he is on sabbatical from General Electric.
I met Jonathan through a group of local photographers from the MAP agency. We immediately hit it off. He took up photography seriously last year and we often go out in the early morning hours to shoot in and around the city. Johanthan is a real friend, especially at a time like this. He is a serene person but also has a twinkle in his eye. I’m fortunate to know him.
One of the Lalon’s amazing songs. Listen for the one string Ektara 45 sec. into the music.
Twice a year Bauls (similar to Sufis) from Bangladesh and India visit Kustia to honor and celebrate the living legacy of the Lalon Shah (c.1774–1890). Lalon wrote hundreds of songs and texts that can’t really be translated from Bengal because of their subtle language and hidden meaning. His music is absolutely estatic. This yearly gathering (Mela) was like a Bangladeshi version of Woodstock. In addition to the Shadu’s (holly men) there were plenty of intellectual and artistic types from Dhaka to join in the festivities. Lalon Shah also had an influence on the poet Rabindranath Tagore, whose home is only five miles from Lalon’s shrine in Kustia. I’m very excited to see and edit the hi-defintion video from this gathering of saints.
Ramadan is over and things are returning to normal. Nice to see men congregating and drinking tea out in the open, During the past two months I’ve met only ONE traveler on the streets of Dhaka. Sure, there are a number of expats in my neighborhood working with the embassies and numerous ngo’s but Bangladesh just isn’t on the backpacker or tourist map. It finally struck me… so maybe that’s why I’m Mr. Celebrity here. I can’t walk down the street without crowds gathering and people constantly asking:
Where are you from?
What is your name?
How long have you been here?
What is your job?
How do you feel about Bangladesh?
Where do you live?
What is your phone number/email address?
Often people will then insist that I visit their homes. How would that make you feel?