A week in Chittagong
It has been another long and inexcusable absence since I last updated this blog, but due to a welcome one week vacation, I finally found time to venture out with my camera and capture some new images that I feel inclined to share.
In a break from other vacations, I decided to remain here in Chittagong and utilize the time to further explore this city and its surrounding area. I did however stick to one vacation tradition and drink an excessive amount of tea! I also slept a lot. Suffice to say it was a pretty enjoyable week.
The title of this post (Chottogram) is the the name of this city in its local Chittagonian dialect (Chatgaya), which differs a little from Bangla and is mainly spoken in the southeast of the country.
Despite being here now for almost 6 years, I still never cease to be enthralled by the sights and sounds around me. I hope you enjoy the following images.
All images © John Stanlake
The Search for Charadi (Sho-ro-di)
The name was etched, deep into my mind by the end of the day, and it’s my own fault quite honestly. My chosen method for traveling within Bangladesh more often than not exposes me to a carnage that rears its head when I decide to select a random name on the map and voyage there. This carnage is obviously caused entirely by my own doing rather than the location I would like to point out.
When I began writing this post, I was in Barisal, and as the map below indicates, this is a region in the south west of Bangladesh, which in many ways encapsulates the stereotypical image people hold of this country; one of endless rivers and waterways, of dense, green paddy fields, bustling markets, and incredible hospitality.
Anyway, back to the now infamous (in my mind at least) Sho-ro-di. I made the decision to venture to a place which bore no mention in the Lonely Planet guide for the Barisal region. I’ve adopted this method previously on my travels within this country, and if truth be told, it tends to deliver mixed results.
Today was no different. I scoured the map for a little while and searched names of towns or villages that lay within an hour by bus from my base in Barisal. The reasoning being that one hour is far enough to feel a little adventurous, but close enough to (hopefully) avoid becoming stranded by nightfall. There were three or four contenders, but in the end I settled on Charadi, which in my misinformed mind was pronounced Cha-raaaa-diiii.
Having identified my chosen place for the day, I filled my bag with the essentials for such an escapade. A fully charged camera, water, sufficient taka, and of course sun cream (for the weak, fragile body I possess), and upon leaving my hotel room, I was filled with the familiar sentiments of excitement and trepidation.
The hotel manager kindly told me which bus terminal to head for and thus I confidently requested a waiting rickshaw driver to take me there. He had a broad smile and the stained, red teeth of a man who regularly chews tobacco.
Traffic was congested with early morning commuters, heavy goods vehicles and sporadic roadworks. Nevertheless, undeterred by this and the increasing heat, my driver ploughed on resiliently and with a kind of do or die attitude that whilst admirable, made for an anxious journey…on my part. Anyway, we reached the bus terminal and I bid farewell to the rickshaw driver and part one of the mystery tour was done.
Or so I thought. It became apparent in no time at all that reaching Charadi would not involve the straightforward task of jumping on a bus. Failure to acknowledge the vital component of correct pronunciation was my first mistake, and when I greeted the bus counter chap with Cha-RA-di, a blank look faced me. I then tried CHA-ra-di, which once again drew puzzlement. Cho-ra-di, Cha-ro-di, Chooooo-od-iiii, Chaaa-raaaa-di, Cha-laaa-di, Cho-looo-di, all followed, until finally someone gasped excitedly, “SHO-RO-DI!” and there were knowing nods all round.
Relief and joy soon turned to disappointment however, as it turned out this was not the correct bus terminal at all, and after the small conference involving me, three men from the bus terminal, one man from the adjacent tea shop and approximately seven other interested onlookers, which eventually identified Sho-ro-di as my desired destination, it was concluded that I was to head back in the exact direction I had just come from.
The day was young however, and I was still in relatively high spirits, so this detour in no way hampered my enthusiasm…yet. I made my way to the launch ghat (ferry port), but frustratingly my mastery of the pronunciation was once again below par and this time it took two policemen, one ticket vendor, and three recently disembarked ferry passengers to decipher my ramblings. “Aaaaah, Sho-ro-di!” once again filled the air with a mix of triumph and relief.
A small boy was enlisted to guide me to the correct boat. One minute he was sat minding his own business, and the next he’s leading me through a small market to the water’s edge. He did earn 20 taka for his due diligence and effort though.
After a short journey on a small passenger boat, I arrived on the opposite riverbank and a kind, older gentleman directed me to the bus I needed to reach the now almost mystical town of Charadi. To be honest I don’t think a great many foreigners ride the local bus to this town, so my presence generated a few double takes.
Initial impressions of my destination were not altogether positive. The first part of the bus journey involved a broad and dusty main road, littered with plastic bottles and other trash, and I wondered if the beautiful scenery that I’d set out to capture with my camera lay somewhere faraway from here, perhaps right back in the opposite direction, but as we took a left turn off the main road, my hopes for Charadi picked up.
While the road quality deteriorated, the surrounding countryside did the exact opposite and seemed to be rejuvenated with a surrounding landscape of dense green trees and glistening streams. Small villages bordered the winding, bumpy road, and after about fifteen minutes of this view through the bus window, we came to a halt. I had made it, some two hours after setting out.
Over the course of the subsequent hours, I spent my day drinking tea, wandering through the small town and neighbouring countryside, and even visited a local primary school!
Was it worth it? Well, hopefully the following photos will answer that question better than words can. However, what I will say briefly is that I once again encountered a beautiful corner of this country, and in my next blog post I’ll share a series of photos from a week spent in the south west, which will hopefully demonstrate the incredible joy of travel and adventure.
Charadi was a quiet and peaceful market town, sat on the bank of a river, which I strolled along for a while. My challenge in reaching here was due in main to my sub-standard pronunciation and short term memory loss. To be perfectly honest as I stood, forlorn and desperately trying to communicate the name ‘Charadi’ to a fairly large audience, I couldn’t help thinking of this video from Disney’s Pete’s Dragon…
“Does it bother you that I talk so much?”
Tucked inconspicuously away from the noise and chaos of one of Chittagong’s longest and busiest main roads you’ll find a small tea shop. Not particularly unique in appearance, it is sandwiched on either side by two further tea shops, and all three function identically, serving very similar items to a wide variety of people who happen to sit down that day. It’s easy to miss the turning into the road these shops are situated on, and most people will pass straight by. My chance encounter came about in a characteristically haphazard manner. I was stranded at the back of a huge line of people all waiting to gain entry into the Indian High Commission. As I stood there exchanging frustrated head nods and tuts with fellow embassy hopefuls, I pondered if it were more logical to continue standing in this line, or whether I should try my luck at camouflaging up and attempt a covert border crossing through the mangrove forests of the Sundarbans.
All was not lost though and help was at hand in the form of a cup of tea and a citizen from the very country I was trying hard to get a visa for. Sharmistha, my friend, colleague, and fellow tea enthusiast had learned of my queue predicament and very kindly arrived to offer moral support/language translation skills. She also went off in search of tea and came back telling the tale of the shop this blog centres around. However, it is much less to do with the actual shop, but rather the person who serves the tea and runs the establishment. Her name is Asma, and she is just twelve years old (“baro” in Bangla).
After eventually entering the High Commission, both Sharmistha and I returned to Asma’s shop for another cup of tea, but also because we wanted to learn more about this tenacious 12 year old. She informed us the shop is her father’s, but as he works as a security guard in a neighbouring hospital, Asma has been assigned the crucial duty of ensuring the tea business runs smoothly. Thus, she sits from morning until evening each day serving tea, paan, bread, and cigarettes to customers, 99% of whom are most probably men. She is twelve remember.
Sharmistha and I have returned to chat with Asma several times now and also with her father and some of the regular patrons of the shop. It is clear they think very highly of Asma, and why wouldn’t they?! She is outgoing, friendly, efficient, and has one of the warmest and most engaging smiles I’ve ever seen. Asma has inspired me to use this blog in future to highlight some of the characters I regularly meet here in Chittagong. Special thanks must go to Sharmistha, who is responsible for the majority of the translation that was required!
When we first met Asma two months ago, she was not attending school. Her father had promised to send her once he found a suitable arrangement for the tea shop around his work schedule. He had tried employing others to run it in his absence, but claimed he was unable to trust them. It therefore fell upon Asma to keep everything in order.
This was a wise choice. From observing Asma she is highly efficient and able to confidently deal with the pressures of a bustling tea stand. She is also very astute with money. On one occasion we came to pay for our tea and Asma’s father wouldn’t take our money. Typical Bangladesh hospitality once again. We protested and exclaimed that if Asma were here, she would certainly accept our money. He laughed and replied, “Yes, you’re right!”
We returned once again to see Asma yesterday and the great news is she is now attending school. Her classes begin at 6.00am and finish for the day at 11.00am. She returns home, eats lunch, completes her homework, and by 2.00pm she is at the tea stand where she’ll remain until around 8.00pm.
We enquired about school and she told us she enjoys it. Currently in class 4, she finds the lessons interesting, and also playing games, something she has previously had little time to do when whole days were spent at work.
Asma attends school with her friend from next door, and this works well as, “She is a good girl, who doesn’t fight with me and she helps her mother.” The school they attend is divided with classes for girls held in the mornings and the classes for boys held in the afternoon. Asma didn’t seem too concerned by this arrangement and wisely concluded that;
“If boys and girls are put together, there will be trouble!”
Originally from a village in Noakhali district to the north west of Chittagong, Asma’s father decided to move to the city in search of work. She admitted to missing village life and particularly her grandparents and the other children she used to play with. The green, the rice fields and the ponds are also aspects of village life she misses. However, her mother is here with her in Chittagong and this is incredibly important for Asma. She told us;
“I love talking with my mother. If I’m not sleeping when I’m at home, I’m talking to my mother. I love her very much.”
As I mentioned earlier, Asma receives respect and affection from the people who regularly visit the tea stand. Whilst we were there yesterday a local policeman stopped for tea and is clearly fond of her. He referred to Asma as “mamoni” an affectionate term used for younger people. Another younger man was asking Asma about school and encouraged her to go there and “make good friends.”
Some regulars seem to look at me and Sharmistha with puzzled eyes, perhaps wondering why we keep returning to the small tea stand and drinking up to three cups of tea at a time just so that we can learn more about the girl with the infectious smile. Asma asked Sharmistha yesterday, “Does it bother you that I talk so much?!”
No Asma, it really does not.
So that is Asma, a twelve year old girl balancing a life of school and work at such a young age. She does so with a smile and positivity that is truly inspiring. She is also extremely wise. As I left yesterday her advice for me was;
“Stay well, and eat your rice well.”
In my previous blog I presented the photographic evidence of copious tea shop visits and interactions with the owners and clientele. During those photo walks I also captured a few images of people at work.
I found that it was quite fascinating to sit and photograph people going about their daily work and trades. I wanted to post this blog simply to present the images that reflect daily life here as I see it through my lens.
This is what I enjoy most about engaging in one of my favourite hobbies here in Chittagong. Through photography I extract so much joy from being able to view and explore this fascinating city and country and to view sights that perhaps seem ordinary or even mundane to one set of eyes, yet to others tell a story.
So, here are the results. Some of the photos were taken some months/years ago, but all are from Bangladesh. Also you may notice that there are few women featured. This was obviously not a conscious decision of mine, but rather reflective of the trades I photographed, and crucially, my location.
The CNG driver
The man who fixes the rickshawalah’s wheels…
…and the man who transports their catch to market
to the man who sells them at the market…
The Produce Sellers
The Ice Cream Man
The Load Carriers and Goods Transporters
And finally, the metalsmith
Tea Shops of Chittagong
It’s probably no secret that one of my favourite activities in Chittagong is drinking tea. You may be thinking well, he’s British, so it kind of figures. Along with queuing (standing in line) and in depth discussions about the weather, we Brits love nothing more than a hot brew. Drinking tea; It’s what we do. When we’re upset, confused, nervous, celebrating, commiserating, pontificating, procrastinating, gossiping, etc, etc….we put the kettle on, and we go straight for the teabags.
Well, here in Chittagong there seems to be a similar culture. One of the main differences being however, that tea drinking is a far more public event. Groups of men and women (but usually men given the culture) can be found far and wide across the city (and the country of course) sipping on hot, sweet tea, and I often end up becoming a member of one of these groups. In all honesty the tea here in Bangladesh is ok, but it’s not so much the tea that draws me in, but rather the experience that surrounds it.
I love the scene and the way life is played out over cups of tea. The comings and goings, the cross section of diverse characters, the energy, the humour, the mystery, and the undulating pace of each individual experience. The tea stalls/shops come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and it’s incredible just how many exist here. I could go on and on trying to describe it in words, but recently I decided it would be far easier, and probably a much greater sensory experience to present Chittagong’s tea drinking through a series of images.
Thus, in the past two weeks I have wandered around the city visiting a vast array of Cha-er dokan (tea shops) and here are the photos I captured. It’s also safe to say that in excess of twenty cups of tea were consumed in the process! I should also state that whilst in some photos the people do not look overly happy about the image being taken, I always make a point of checking with people (often 2-3 times) that they are ok for me to take the photo. From my experience it is very common for the people I’ve met to switch to their most serious expression when the photo is taken.
A common scene found across the city and country
‘Adda’ – informal conversations on a quiet day
A variety of snacks to accompany your tea
This shop is as wide and as deep as the photo suggests
The roadside tea shop
Bananas, bread and tea
Beside the rail tracks, the tea shack – a community centre
Learning the trade early
One of the noisier tea shops – located by the side of a frequently congested main road
TMT – a larger establishment with a reputation for fine tea
One of the many tea sellers who populate this city
A bustling tea/food shop
The rickshawallah’s break
Discussing the day over early evening cha
The hub of a road or area
A common snack here in Chittagong
Evening entertainment at the tea shop
No finer way to spend 10 minutes
Watching the world go by
A small cup of tea and condensed milk greatness
Tea shop faces
The mobile teawallah
And finally in an ode to tea drinking here is a song from one of my favourite bands, Kula Shaker, who have captured the magic of a nice cup of tea magically. Enjoy!
Despite the backpack I carry on my shoulders each day, which commonly provokes sniggers, I am not Bangladeshi. It’s obvious of course, but sometimes I receive very clear reminders. I experienced one such reminder this past Saturday, and having not written anything for a while on this blog I thought I’d share my story of one fine day (as a foreigner) in Bangladesh.
It all started at 7.30am on a grey, but uncomfortably humid morning. The mission was to escape Chittagong armed only with a bottle of water, a camera, and a resolute willingness to explore. Thus, after a quick coffee and a piece of bread, a fairly random ‘plan’ was hatched. Essentially it entailed buying a bus ticket, boarding the vehicle, riding it for an unspecified amount of time, and ultimately jumping off when our gut feeling signalled it was time. A foolproof plan of that there’s no doubt…
On a basic level the plan worked. We bought bus tickets to Cox’s Bazar, a coastal town roughly four hours south of Chittagong. There was never any intention of a day by the sea though, and three hours into the journey we decided this would be a suitable time to abandon ship, which turned out to be easier said than done. Explaining to the driver and his assistant that we’d gone far enough at this point turned into a 5 minute to and fro. A vigorous debate ensued between us all, prolonged of course by the language barrier. When we finally convinced our hosts to stop and let us off, we left a bus full of confused and concerned faces all wondering just why these two strange foreigners were stood by the side of the road, marooned in the middle of nowhere, and 60 kilometres from the final destination stated on their tickets.
Not our bus, but impressive nonetheless
It is true, we had no idea where we were, but as always here in Bangladesh it doesn’t take long for someone to offer a friendly smile and an inquisitive hello. On this day it took little under two minutes and we were soon summoned over to a group of men, sat down in plastic chairs and swiftly offered a cup of tea. For me no day out in Bangladesh is complete without an obligatory cup of tea surrounded by interesting new faces. So, given that this condition had been met within moments of us setting foot off the bus, I concluded that whatever happened from this point onwards, it would end well.
Our mission for the day was photography and we were exactly where we wanted to be – out of the city and surrounded by flat, green, rural Bangladesh. Our location was perfect, now all we needed was the photographs. Unfortunately this is where our plan faltered a little. The aim had been to spend the day wandering, perhaps aimlessly, but with the very definite purpose of capturing scenes of rice paddies, local people going about their daily lives, sunlight hitting the various ponds dotted across the landscape, and finally an epic sunset that would make the early start and the bus trip worth it. It didn’t quite pan out this way.
Within five minutes of bidding our tea hosts farewell, the skies darkened ominously, and it was not long before a man from the group of tea drinkers came up behind us with a concerned look on his face and exclaimed “brishti hobe!” – rain is coming! He was correct, and so very kindly invited us to shelter in his home until the shower passed. An hour later we were still there, but it didn’t matter, he and his family made us typically welcome and we had as much fun sat there getting to know his relatives as we would have had exploring the area.
Our host had two children. He also lived with his wife, mother, father and sister who brought us juice and biscuits and seemed concerned that we politely refused the offer of rice several times. His father sat in a separate room and with a warm but somewhat confused look on his face (probably in response to the mystery of how two foreigners had ended up stranded in his house and disrupting the usual equilibrium) invited us to sit. He stared at me intently and then proceeded to ask me a series of quick-fire questions in Bangla. Now, I can respond to several basic questions and even respond with questions of my own, but once the introductions are complete and the comments about how hot it is are over, I’m stumped. This didn’t deter our host though – the questions came thick and fast, much to the amusement of his wife who was peeling lentils outside in a corridor, and sniggering heartily. The more inquisitive he became, the more confused I sounded.
Our host’s wife and daughter
Our host’s neighbour
Outside the rain continued to pour down and our hopes of photography faded. No matter though; we were walked over to a neighbour’s house and once again the introductions began. A jovial man welcomed us and we got the sense he was perhaps a central figure in the community. Insisting we sit for a while and drink some famous Sylheti green tea, he proceeded to call his son….and then hand me the phone. I chatted to his son for a while, who was as hospitable as his father and invited me to stay in his home in Srimangal. It is unlikely that such an invitation would be extended to a stranger you had never met before in the UK, but here in Bangladesh it is commonplace.
Finally the rain did ease, and as a glimpse of sunlight began to poke its way through the clouds we thanked our new friends who had provided shelter, tea and kind hospitality. At this point we headed up the road, once again completely aimlessly. We were lucky enough to capture some images of the surrounding countryside (and unfortunately a forlorn bus, which was the latest victim of Bangladesh’s unpredictable highways), but overall the main highlights of the day had been the people we met and the experiences we shared.
Another day in Bangladesh.
Unfortunately not an untypical scene
Here are some further images from the day
Pronounced ‘Shon-deep’ (or Shun-deef depending on who you talk to) the island of Sandwip sits at an estuary of the Meghna River on the Bay of Bengal. Open precariously to the elements, the residents of the island are no strangers to the carnage and chaos extreme weather can bring. On April 29, 1991 it is estimated that 40,000 people were killed by an unforgiving cyclone that tore through the island leaving thousands dead and even more homeless.
Almost 23 years on from that day, the island was a perfect picture of calm and serenity when I visited last week to spend a couple of days with a colleague who was born and raised on Sandwip, and whose family still reside there. The memories of that fateful day in 1991 still haunt people though, and as my colleague introduced me to one family member the immediate response was to enquire somewhat confusedly as to why I had come, and was I not scared of the threat of a cyclone? The fear still grips residents of this community and as water levels rise, shores slowly creep towards homes, and extreme weather becomes even more unpredictable, it’s easy to understand why.
However, apart from one short, sharp thunder storm my visit was largely undramatic in terms of weather. The rumbles of thunder and the patter of raindrops on the tin roofs only added to the charm of this place. You see Sandwip proved to be an experience of some contrast to my regular, everyday experience of Bangladesh. In Chittagong (my home for the entire two year duration of my life here so far) the noise of trucks, buses, cars, and CNGs penetrates and pollutes the air almost everywhere you go. It’s a city of 6 million people and thus it is hard to find a place to escape that hustle. I appreciate Chittagong for so many reasons, but the noise can take its toll at times.
When I returned from Sandwip I told a friend quite proudly and perhaps even a little smugly that I had seen only one lone car during my time on the island. His response was to point out that I had in fact been rather unfortunate as most visitors don’t see any!
Without wanting to sound patronising or to belittle Sandwip in any way, I would sum up my time there as taking a step back in time. I mean this in the most positive way. At night the stars filled the sky and were as bright as I’d ever seen them. In the day the local market bustled with traders and large numbers of cattle ready to be sold.
Agriculture drives the local economy it seems and manual labour appears to be the catalyst for this. There are countless tea shops, and each and every one seemed to be the centre of discussion and socialising amongst the islanders.
There are few roads on Sandwip. In more developed areas paved paths allow bicycles and rickshaws to pass easily, and if you go ‘off road’ you will find more basic, dusty paths that make it more complex for anything on wheels to pass. Bathing is also a distinctly communal affair for many.
I bathed in the pond close to the house where I was staying. This essentially entailed tying a lunghi around my waist and diving into the pond. It all went fine until I dropped the soap and it sank beneath the murky water, causing much amusement to the onlookers who had gathered to watch me bathe. Sandwip does not receive a vast number of foreign visitors, so my half naked presence in the pond drew a crowd!
Life is visibly tough though for many people here, and it was evident everywhere I visited on the island. Manual labour dominates as I mentioned, and this comes in a variety of forms. For example, as we left the island to return to the urban sprawl of Chittagong, we had to board a speedboat. At the time we and around ten other people wished to travel, the tide was out and thus the channel sat far out in the distance, and before us lay a mass of deep, dense, and unsympathetic wet sand. The solution was to herd us into a nearby wooden boat, and it soon became apparent that 10 men would drag us out to where the speedboat was waiting.
For the next 25 minutes they heaved and used every muscle in their bodies to get us to the water. When the boat became trapped assigned men would leap into action and strategically dig away the offending sand and we’d continue on our way. At some points they would chant in unison to motivate each other and it was apparent that teamwork was paramount. We arrived at the speedboat and 25 minutes later we were back on mainland Bangladesh. Well, not quite. The process was repeated and once again we were dragged across the sand. By the end I felt incredibly lucky to be able to teach.
My time in Sandwip was short, but I caught a glimpse of something I felt it was possible for me to connect with. Of course life on the island is very different to my previous personal life experiences, but there is something about rural Bangladesh which intrigues me. The people were so welcoming and despite my still very limited Bangla skills, I was able to converse and bond with a number of people. My colleague and his family were the perfect hosts and I am already planning on when I can return for a longer visit.
For my full album of photos from Sandwip follow the link below;
Finally, the title of this blog post is the English translation of a lyric from the national anthem of Bangladesh, Amar Sonar Bangla, by Rabrindranath Tagore. Today marks Bangladesh’s 43rd year of independence. Here is a wonderful rendition of the song,
I’ve neglected this blog so far in 2014. A combination of work, misguided priorities, and the fact I’ve been slightly daunted by the task of describing a one month tour of South East Asia through words, which will almost certainly not do it justice.
So, for now I’ve decided that I’ll let images tell the story. I took many, but here are 15 of my favourites and a selection which I hope do the places most justice. I chose five photos from Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.
For a more comprehensive album of photos from the trip please follow this link;
Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon
Floating village community, Inle Lake
Roadside tea shop, Yangon
Sunrise and hot air balloon rides over Bagan
Kandawgyi Lake, Yangon
A quiet village road, just outside of Siem Reap
Sunrise over Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
One of the many faces of Angkor Wat, Siem Reap
Village home, Siem Reap
Choeung Ek Genocide Memorial Site, Phnom Penh
(This is the main memorial to mark the genocide that took place in Cambodia during the late 1970s. It is also a burial site for thousands of Cambodians who were victims of Pol Pot’s brutal Khymer Rouge regime, executed here at just one of the many sites across the country, which became known as the ‘Killing Fields’.)
Ho Chi Minh City
Da Lat hills, in the southern highlands.
Village road outside Thai Nguyen, northern Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, Hanoi
The northern hills of Tam Dao
It was an incredibly diverse and eye-opening trip. Once again South Asia completely failed to disappoint, and armed with a camera I feel like I saw so much in such a short space of time.
Here is a larger set of photos from the trip;
Spreading the gospel. That’s how my Dad has always described my jaunts to far flung lands. He’s not talking about religion however. No, he always ensures I pack my large green and white flag, my shirt, and an up to date fixture list.
Saturday, September 21st 1991. Two months shy of my eighth birthday I received my first taste of watching Plymouth Argyle Football Club. In 1959 my Dad had made the same journey with his Dad, and thirty two years on it was my turn. I recall very little of the day, and it wasn’t until I’d been to a few more games that I became enraptured by the sights, sounds, and smells of watching live football, and specifically Argyle. However, that first experience was enough to initiate a relationship that has lasted twenty two years and counting. Incidentally the game ended Plymouth Argyle 1-1 Middlesbrough. I’m sure it wasn’t too long before I witnessed my first defeat.
In the past few years I’ve lived in the Czech Republic, Rwanda, Guyana and Bangladesh – my current home. My flag has been to all. However, I think it has at long last found its final resting place.
At the end of my street there is a modest tea shop that serves the labourers, the rickshaw drivers and other locals from the area. It is an unassuming, simple place. Every day smoke billows from the cave-like kitchen at the rear, and men come and go, never stopping for any great length of time, there are things to do. I found out recently, it is also a place full of great warmth and hospitality.
My flatmate John and I decided to stop by there one morning. We drank tea, ate snacks and conversed with the other tea drinkers using our very limited Banlga skills, and then we came to pay. “No pay. My guests. No pay” was the response from the owner, Mr Golam, who sat at a small desk by the entrance. We smiled and thanked him, and then politely offered our money once again. His response was the same. We left feeling grateful, humbled, and yet a little embarrassed.
Later that week we stopped by again, and when it came to pay his response was as before. “No pay, my guests, you come every day, no pay.” We remonstrated politely again, but were left equally embarrassed and a little frustrated. Two further visits followed, and still no Taka left our wallets. It seemed all attempts to pay were futile, so alternative methods would have to be employed to show our appreciation.
We decided gifts would be our new means of payment, and it didn’t take long to decide on our first offering. The wall of our living room was decorated with two flags. One displaying the green and blue of John’s team, Seattle Sounders FC, and the other the green and white of Plymouth Argyle. We took them down to the tea shop and handed them over to our new friend. His walls were bare, so we hoped he would appreciate the flags. He took them, thanked us, folded and then placed them on the desk in the corner. We left (after not paying once again) wondering if our flags would make it up onto the wall.
A couple of days later we walked past and had a quick glance in. There they were, in all their glory, pinned proudly to the wall of the tiny tea shop. My Argyle flag looked more majestic than it ever had before. It was decided that the pinning of our flags to the wall was an occasion deserving of more tea, so we sat and explained the importance of the new wall decorations to an array of other tea shop proprietors. Spreading the gospel, one step at a time.
The tea shop has now become our ‘regular’, and once or twice a week we stop by and sit for a while. AUW is a wonderful environment to work in, but it can become claustrophobic. We are shuttled from our apartments to the campus early in the morning, and once work is done for the day we are shuttled back home. It often takes a conscious effort to search for interactions outside of this bubble. For us the tea shop is our life outside of AUW and our connection to the real Chittagong.
The Chittagong we have encountered in the tea shop is quite fascinating. The diversity of the clientele has been a source of intrigue as we’ve met local students, rickshawalahs, security guards, and even a former UN peacekeeper in the Congo. The reaction from one and all though has been consistent. We are always welcomed, always looked after, and always thoroughly humbled by the generosity and warmth of our hosts.
Personally I feel significantly more connected and a part of this corner of Chittagong than I ever have before. Faces are familiar, I recognize and exchange greetings with people as I walk the streets, and I have a place to go if I need a reminder of just why I was drawn back to this place . Describing the shop and its owner, one of the students sipping tea told me yesterday, “This isn’t just a tea shop. This man is like a father to us. If we need help, he helps us.” Observing the comings and goings for a while it seemed this applied to many others. Mr Golam is generally a man of few words, but when he speaks you listen, and when he smiles you know the warmth is genuine.
We asked him recently how long the shop has been serving tea to the locals and he replied, “forty years, before me my father.” It is quite difficult to even comprehend this fact, but it also makes sense. In a society where community is often so important, this tea shop plays a pivotal role.
I wonder if my green Argyle flag will adorn the walls of this shop for the next forty years.