A statistical and image-based reflection on a week in west Bangladesh
After nine straight weeks of teaching, the question was how to fill nine days of vacation. On this occasion I decided to remain in Bangladesh and take the opportunity to explore this country a little further, and having never ventured due west before, that is where I went. The division of Khulna to be precise, which borders India and comprises a number of districts, including Jessore and Khulna.
Travelling individually has always felt a little daunting to me, so the prospect of spending the duration of the break navigating an unfamiliar area of Bangladesh alone provoked mixed emotions. Nevertheless, I survived, and I’m here to report in. I’ll spare the mundane play by play account of what happened and instead present an array of telling statistics. Prior to leaving Chittagong I decided I’d take a pad and pen with me on the trip and keep a tally of the inevitable and the unexpected in equal measure.
So, here it is, the story of my week in Jessore and Khulna in numbers, beginning with the most important and reflective of all…
46 – Cups of tea consumed
20 – Cups of tea I paid for
26 – Cups of tea bought for me by ever hospitable locals
10 – Invites to homes
4 – Invites accepted
659 – Photos taken (see a select set here – Jessore & Khulna)
6 – Modes of transport used during the trip
37 – Times my unmarried status evoked confused frowns
21 – Times it was suggested I marry in Bangladesh
4 – Business cards received
27 – Business cards distributed
3 – Occasions in which I was asked if I came from Japan
24 – Jibes received regarding England’s woeful Cricket World Cup campaign
12 – Times I was asked to reveal my salary
6 – 15th century mosques visited
7 – Hindu temples visited
Here is a list of events which occurred just once, but I deemed worthy enough to scribble down in my notepad…
- Requested to convert to Islam for marriage purposes
- Military border parades witnessed
- Squeezed into a body-hugging Bangladesh cricket shirt and told, “It fits perfectly boss!”
- Asked if Iranian
- Told to cancel my hotel booking and sleep in the home of a man I had met just 30 minutes previously
- After briefly chatting with a man I met earlier in the day, he then text to inform me he was knocking on my hotel room door and requested I open said door…
- ‘Adventure Parks’ visited that made me want to scream “WHY??!!” at the person who recommended it and assured me it was “very beautiful…”
- Told I was lying about my age as I couldn’t possibly be as young as I was claiming
- Told a man he was the least friendliest person I had ever met in Bangladesh after he spent a good five minutes ridiculing my intelligence for not carrying my passport and stating that as the British were “Kings” I am practically a disgrace to the great nation of Britain
And finally, a list of occurrences that initially I had firm intentions of meticulously tracking. Yet, as the hours and days passed, I soon realised it would be impossible to keep an accurate record due to the sheer volume. So, in the end they became uncountable, but no less significant…
- Asked the question, “Your country?”
- Confused questions with suspicious facial expressions regarding my reason for being in Jessore/Khulna/Bangladesh
- Enthusiastically praised for my comprehensive Bangla language proficiency
- Robustly chastised for my low level of Bangla language proficiency
- Pondered the meaning of life
- Wondered if rural Bangladesh is the most beautiful place on earth
- Wondered why my bus driver was trying to overtake three other buses up ahead
- Wondered how that 93rd passenger was going to find a space to squeeze into on the already cramped bus, but soon realising there was space for passengers 94, 95 and 96.
So that concludes a brief look at my week in the west. It was fascinating, eye-opening, and at times a little testing. However, it was completely worth it, and evidence once again of why I often question why more tourists don’t come and explore this golden land.
Selfishly I’m glad they don’t though, because there were times on the trip as I sat on the back of a wagon and we meandered our way down a silent, tree-lined country road in the early evening, just as the sun began to set, that I thought to myself, “I’m totally at peace right now.”
“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.”