Dhaka to Barisal & Kuakata and on to Benapole Tues 13 - Tues 20 July 2010
In the end, for our last week in Bangladesh we drove down to the southern tip of Kuakata instead of to Mongla as planned. It's not actually the season for the Sundarban boats and so whilst not impossible it would have been very expensive to organize one on our own and also it would have involved a huge amount of driving - as we always planned to go to Kuakata and we'd then have to back track to Mongla before doing the big drive across to the border -so with little time left we decided just to go to Kuakata and chill out for a day or so before heading back to Dhaka. We're sad not to make it to the Sundarbans (and see any tigers) but we have to save something for next time and we hope to get back to Bangladesh!
So on Wednesday 14th we began the drive south. Again, once we'd got shot of the crazy Dhaka traffic we were amongst countryside of an unbelievable green lushness. Mango season was now over but guava season was in full swing and they were selling and/or harvesting them everywhere - huge ones. It was also obviously the jute season and everywhere we went it was being harvested, washed in the water and hung out in lines on every bridge to dry.
We took the first of several ferries we were to cross. Usually you're on and off in less than 10 minutes so we were a bit surprised that this first one was over 2 hours.
A huge old rusty ferry we were pushed along by a tug boat. As ever it's all happening on board- with people selling all sorts, snacks, drinks, fresh fish, combs and an enterprising salesman taking advantage of his captive audience to sell some sort of lotion /potion - all we could understood is that it was only 10 BDT - but from all the actions it looked like it should cure anything and everything. Sadly for him the audience remained unconvinced and he didn't seem to be selling much!
We reached the remote town of Barisal by mid afternoon and so decided to spend the night there. We stayed in the optimistically named Hotel Paradise - it certainly wasn't - but it was cheap!!
A major port Barisal is a real river city - it's easier to reach by boat than road -and thus it feels pretty remote from the rest of the country. It was a pleasant little town with some old Raj era buildings - from when the British had it as an administrative centre - and a town centre lake. They (perhaps unsurprisingly) don't get many foreigners and we had the usual crowd of starers wherever we went - all very friendly.
We had a bizarre dinner experience - we went in a little restaurant and asked for chicken and rice in absence of an English menu thinking that was easy.
"Chicken fried chips??" said the waiter. "No…just rice and chicken..."
He came back "chicken ...French fries??" Again we assured him no. Anyway when dinner finally arrived it was (of course!) fried chicken and chips! We tried to order rice as a side dish and he said they didn't have any. Surely this can't be right?? It was all too hard and we were tired so we ate what we were given and left. That's obviously what foreigners are supposed to eat - and there was no changing it!!
Like many other little towns Barisal has its markets, it's brightly coloured rickshaws its war monuments and its beggars - though thankfully not too many of these - maybe not enough tourists/foreigners.
The next day the 100km of road on to Kuakata was a slow but interesting journey having 5 more car ferries - all the rest fairly short ones though. There were little communities on each side of the rivers - selling goods and food for the ferry commuters and of course each ferry had its resident beggars - most of whom were badly disabled.
As well as the large car ferries there were numerous little wooden boats which were heavily loaded with passengers, motorbikes animals (like the old man's "chicken in a bag") and went repeatedly backwards and forwards pretty quickly. The river was pretty powerful here and it was a bit scary seeing how fast the boats move as the boat men struggled to load and unload them - they certainly work pretty hard these guys.
Andrew went to the fish markets whilst I had a shower to try and get some fresh seafood to have for dinner - but had no joy as it was the low season and people only seemed to be fishing for their own needs - instead he brought loads of fresh veggies and the hotel cooked them into a curry for us which was really good.
We had had vague plans of getting a fishing boat to take us out to the islands and maybe even to the edges of the Sundarbans but it were considered too risky to take the boats out as during the monsoon times the seas are pretty unpredictable and can change very swiftly into being quite dangerous. We didn't really mind. After all this rushing around it was nice to have a lazy day - just having a bit of a wonder on the beach in the evening and staying in the room most of the day escaping the intense heat - that's why its low season!
We also did some work on the website. Not sure if I've said this but we're really impressed with the internet system here. We use our mobile as a modem and can connect to the internet for the cost of 300 BDT or $5 Aus for one month. This has worked impeccably throughout our time here and is in contrast to India where we had a nightmare every time we changed state as we had to reset the whole thing. To be fair to India we would have been ok if we'd not been moving so much and Bangladesh being smaller didn't have different state's networks to complicate things - one does all. On the whole it is surprising for a small very poor country Bangladesh is amazingly advanced in some areas - their environmental awareness their technology, the cleanliness of the streets being way ahead of the vast majority of Asian countries we've visited. They should give themselves credit for all this.
The original inhabitants of Kuakata are the Rakhine a tribal people who escaped here from persecution in Myanmar in the 18th century. Their descendants still live here and still predominantly practice Buddhism. A few kms out of town is a Buddhist temple which we eventually found! The outside is a bit bizarre - it looked like an Aussie tin corrugated shack- but inside it housed a 100 year old Buddha statue said to be the largest in Bangladesh. The Rakhine monk who looked after it showed us around though as he spoke no English we didn't learn a lot! Kuakata was a relaxed tranquil little spot and we would have liked to stay longer. Next time!
Next day we did the drive back to Dhaka in one hit - 6 ferries and 12 hours in total. We were making such good time when we hit Barisal we decided to head on but then we had a puncture so got a bit behind but we were already focused on reaching Dhaka.
We were also a bit mislead by the road signs (this has happened a few times on our trip here) which lie to you. We were counting down from the original one, when suddenly we "gained" a further 40 km i.e.) "Dhaka 200km"….then after a drive of 30km "Dhaka 210km…" We hoped it would disappear again - but no we were stuck with it!
Next day we had a sleep in and a lazy day before heading out in the afternoon to meet Al, Morshed and their friend Nadeer for a river trip back at the Buriganga River.
We had a great afternoon - the sneaky thing being as long as you're discreet the boats operate as floating bars and we were able to have a relaxing few drinks as we drifted around. Morshed also took us to a great party at a small Hindu community who live on the river. There had been a baby boy born - and so a huge celebration with singing, drums and dancing was in full swing. It was great to see this and we'd never have found it on our own. Thanks to Al and Morshed for all their help whilst we were in Bangladesh and to Nadeer (or more particularly his mother!) who kindly invited us for a delicious home cooked meal the next day.
Finally Monday 19th dawned and at 4pm, with some trepidation we went to the Indian HC to pick up our visas. We actually were quite concerned after the hoo haa of the week before as they do have complete power and could just say "No visa" and we'd be totally stuffed. For the second time our paperwork (and this time also our passports) had gone missing but after over an hour they found them and "rushed through" the stamping (though they'd had 5 working days to do it!) We got 3 months rather than the 6 we asked for. This is actually a bit of a pain. The visa is a double entry one, which means that we can go in and out once - but there's little point in breaking it to go to Nepal as we have to spend 2 months out of the country before we get our next visa, and we're going to have to spend all this time in Nepal as there is nowhere else we can go with the car. This means we'll miss the Commonwealth games in Delhi which we were hoping to go to as they'll be in the 2 month break period. It also makes the logistics of where to go hard - we still haven't decided what we'll do now - whether to rush through or try and get a further 6 months from Nepal. This 2 month rules has really stuffed us up - and if anyone can tell me how it helps prevent /control terrorism please write and tell me as I really don't get it! Never mind at least we got a visa - things could always be worse!
So, sadly the time had come to bid farewell to all at Mr.Baboo's homestay the Dhaka apartment which had been our home base here on 5 separate occasions. We drove across Gulshan Lake Bridge - home of the poshest apartments on one side and the riverside slums on the other - for the last time.
On Tuesday 20 July, as ever the last possible day of our visa we set off at 7am on our way back to India. On the way out of Dhaka we took the wrong road but this was a good thing as we ended up passing the National Martyrs' Memorial out at Savar which we'd wanted to see but never got around to. Featuring on the 100 BDT note this 50 metres high structure is a striking tribute to the millions who died in the Liberation War. Set in impressively designed and maintained gardens it was an impressive monument to these people.
We made our last ferry crossing in Bangladesh, where we were lucky as we just caught it by the skin of our teeth as we could squeeze into a space too tight for the big trucks. We stopped for a quick lunch at Jessore - the first city we visited here 3 months ago- and took the opportunity to fill our extra tank of fuel. Diesel is around 44 BDT or approx 73 cents Oz per litre here, making it cheaper than India which was 37 rp or 93 cents when we left. Recently the news here has been full here of demonstrations in India due to the big the hike in fuel prices so a it's now likely to be even higher we thought we'd stock up this side of the border.
After driving the final 30km we hit the border town of Benapole with an hour to spare - or actually one and a half hours for the Indian side due to the time difference. We had to go and change some rupees back to BDT as we'd not kept the 600 BDT (300 each) back for our departure tax - whoops!
We gave the last of our taka change to the beggars at the border who hang there with this in mind and finally left Bangladesh, crossing back into the Indian border town of Haridas Pur. We then began the final 80 odd km of our journey back to the city of Kolkata.