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Tashi Delek

A week in the beautiful kingdom of Bhutan


Thimphu Dzong

It’s shamefully embarrassing to admit this, but upon reflection I think I have reached the point where I’m travelling to countries that just a few years ago I knew little, or nothing about. My move to Bangladesh back in 2011 not only introduced me to this golden land, but given that my job is teaching students from 15 different countries, my eyes and ears have been exposed to each and every one of those countries in some way. I’m undoubtedly a lot richer for that.

A few weeks back I finally had the opportunity to visit one of those countries that had most intrigued me, and thanks to the assistance, amazing kindness and visa office doggedness of Dechen (a former student) I was on a plane to Paro and landing in Bhutan.

Bhutan is sandwiched in a somewhat intimidating position between India and China and is unique in its policy of measuring Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than GDP. In effect, focus is placed more firmly upon the preservation of culture with a commitment to environmental conservation and sustainable development. Thus, it’s not the easiest of places to enter as a tourist or to roam freely once you are there. However, don’t let the bureaucracy deter you because quite frankly, it is stunning and so very endearing in many ways.

Punakha

In this account of my brief stay in Bhutan, I will try to explain just why, based of course on personal experience, this kingdom of just 800,000 people made such an impression.

Here is an album with a selection of photos – Bhutan


Natural beauty

Eastern Himalayan mountains, deep and dramatic valleys, winding rivers, dense forests, fertile pastures, and wide open plains all contribute to the breathtaking scenery that surrounds you. As the plane lands in Paro, it weaves between mountainous peaks and according to this article, only eight pilots are currently certified to land aircrafts there!

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Preservation of culture

Bhutan is proud of its cultural heritage, and has taken strong measures to ensure not only its survival, but crucially its conservation and continued significance in everyday life. Television and internet is a surprisingly new feature of life in Bhutan having only been introduced (officially) in 1999. Tourism is limited and controlled, and national dress is a must at various locations including most workplaces. There is a gritty commitment to rejecting and actively fighting those external influences that can commonly be accused of eroding traditional culture in certain other countries that have welcomed tourism with open arms.

Dechen, Pema, and Sonam in traditional dress

Dechen, Pema, and Sonam in traditional dress


Road safety signs

On the beautiful winding and meandering main highway between Paro and Thimphu, which I imagine is one of Bhutan’s busiest, there are regular road safety signs that predominantly focus on reducing speed. They get their message across though in a quirky and sometimes cheeky fashion. I wasn’t able to capture any photos, but I did make a note of two in particular that stuck in my head…

“If you are married, divorce speed!”

And…

“Be gentle on my curves”

On a more serious note though, it does appear that road safety is a huge priority in Bhutan with regular police checkpoints and from what I saw a diligent appreciation of the laws in place.


Dogs

In Bhutan there are dogs….so many dogs. They are everywhere. On every street corner, under every bridge, asleep on every sidewalk and at night they serenade you until the early hours with huge canine choirs. They are also quite often big, furry things that generally add a level of happiness and warmth to an already happy and warm country!


There are bins. People use them.

There seems to be a genuine commitment to, and pride in keeping the country clean. It may seem a little patronizing to point this out, but from travelling and from experiences back home in the UK, I feel that many places (and people) have abandoned their responsibility to this simple and basic condition. The bins are also covered in motivational and encouraging messages, just in case you feel the inclination not to utilize them.


Hospitality

This was not much of a surprise. Whenever I travel I encounter genuinely kind and hospitable people. Bhutan was no different, and I had not expected it to be. Before I’d even begun the visa application process, my Bhutanese students and their families had offered all kinds of help and support, and once I landed in Bhutan that help and support became even more ubiquitous. From the man in the coffee shop who gave me a warm welcome each morning, to the friend of a friend who within thirty minutes of meeting me had paid for my dinner, it was a week full of unrelenting kindness. Special mentions must go to Dechen, Pema, Sonam, Yeshey, Kencho, Namgay, and to Roma and her family. These wonderful people made my stay in Bhutan even more perfect than it could have been.

Pema, Dechen and Sonam

Roma with some local kids

Namgay – my new friend and fantastic guide for a day in Punakha

Dechen and Pema


Beautiful Buildings

In Bhutan it seems there are beautiful old buildings everywhere. In Thimphu many of the newer buildings also display the traditional style, which goes a long way to once again preserving the history and cultural heritage.


So, those are just a few aspects of my trip to Bhutan that stood out and made we wish I’d had significantly more time to really explore further. As with many of the places I’ve visited, I plan to return one day. I’m not sure when that will be, but hopefully sooner rather than later.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Tashi Delek is difficult to translate directly, but it is often taken to mean “blessings and good luck” and is used in Bhutan, but also parts of Nepal and northern India.

Here is a gallery of some further photos from my trip…

Bhagyaban

A Summer in Devon


As has become an almost mini tradition with this blog, my August post will be dedicated to photos from home. The academic year in Bangladesh came to a successful close in June and a six week vacation was divided between Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and of course, Torquay, Devon.

In my next blog I’ll share some of those images from Rwanda and DRC (which will include molten lava and bullet-holed signposts), but for now here is a selection from home. This inevitably comprises photos of sunsets, dogs, hills, family, real ale, Plymouth Argyle, and the ocean.

The title of this blog post simply means “lucky” in Bangla, and when I am home in the UK it always makes me stop and reflect upon how lucky I was and am to have grown up in Devon and to be able to go home and visit on an annual basis.

This summer was no different, and there were several moments I reflected on this good fortune. Perhaps these photos will explain better than words can.  Just as I feel often mesmerized by the Bangladesh countryside, Devon provokes a distinctly parallel experience.

There was one evening in particular. I took Jack, our border collie, for an evening walk and the sun was just beginning to set over the fields that spread towards the horizon. The light was perfect and the peace and silence was unlike anything I had experienced for a while.

I’m back in Bangladesh now, and I don’t know quite when I’ll experience that type of silence again, but I do know the countryside here offers just as many peaceful experiences, so “bhagyaban” undoubtedly applies to my time here also.

So, here’s a small selection of photos from my latest summer of reconnection with home.


The People You Meet

Travelling – it’s all about the journey. All about the spectacular places you see, the food you eat, the fear and excitement of the unknown and the cultures and customs you experience and are often invited into. You click frantically in a desperate attempt to capture as many memories as possible, and if you’re like me, you try to keep notes and write about the unique, random and sometimes bizarre moments that will no doubt occur at regular points throughout the journey.

Local Rwandan band

Local Rwandan band

However, during my most recent trip to Rwanda and the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) it dawned on me that one of the most important aspects of my travels and time abroad has been the people I’ve met, and crucially, the things I’ve learned from each and every one of these people. I have come to realise this cannot be underestimated or overlooked in regards to its value, relevance and impact.

Kim and I (halfway up a volcano)

Kim and I (halfway up a volcano)

International travelers inspire. Their sense of adventure and courage in the face of the unknown is at times baffling, but more often than not, totally energizing. They are often brave, curious, open, and unafraid to try new things, unburdened by logistics, and often equipped with a sharp and equally patient sense of humour. Those who travel live for the moment and instead of asking “Why?” the question is usually “Why not?”

Some may remark it is an irresponsible and risky existence, but I would say the outcomes of these risks are moments that will stay etched in the memory for a lifetime. From my personal experiences during my explorations I have encountered all manner of personalities, and this has undoubtedly been paramount to my own personal growth. It has inspired me to do things I had probably never before considered.

I have become more open and confident in meeting new people and more eager to strike up a conversation. My willingness to try new things has known far fewer bounds in recent years, and whilst I try my very best to be as careful and respectful as possible, I think the dive into the unknown is a truly formative experience.

At various points on my recent trip, I interacted and spent time with a group of people who truly emphasized the diversity and collective adventurous spirit of the international worker and traveller.

Firstly I reunited with three good friends who have all carved out their own individually international paths in recent years. Inga (from Norway) volunteered with me in Rwanda in 2010 and since then has gone on to spend an extended period teaching at an international school in Kigali. She has also spent time teaching in refugee camps in Lebanon (predominantly home to Syrian refugees) and is now about to begin a PhD at Oxford University researching education in refugee camps, which will once again take her to camps in East Africa and the Middle East.

Kirsty (from Canada) is a web designer and online entrepreneur currently based in Rwanda and responsible for this great website www.livinginkigali.com. She also travels extensively and a major part of this is dedicated to her work with disaster relief projects. In the past few years she has been to Haiti, Bangladesh, Malawi and most recently, Nepal as a volunteer for an organisation which sends volunteers to assist with work after major disasters (www.hands.org).

Finally Kim (from the US) is also a former fellow volunteer in Rwanda. Since our work together in 2010 she has lived in Bogota, Colombia and Dar es Salam, Tanzania and travelled a great deal during this time. It is safe to say that Kim has experienced some of the very real challenges of life in major international capital cities and has been a constant and reliable source of knowledge and advice during the past few years.

So, as you can imagine, the stories and experiences shared when we all came together were humorous, intriguing, eye-opening, but most importantly they provided a very real insight into a wide variety of life experiences and challenges.

(L-R) Johnny, me, Inga, Kirsty and Kim

(L-R) Johnny, me, Inga, Kirsty and Kim

We all signed up to hike Mount Nyiragongo in The DRC and personally I was a little reluctant when the volcano hike was in the planning stages due to cost and risk. Eastern DRC is an area rife with extremely dangerous rebel groups that reside in the dense forests and often unleash brutal and devastating attacks on surrounding towns and villages. It is the reason why there are large numbers of UN peacekeepers based in nearby Goma.

In addition to that Nyiragongo is an active volcano, which last erupted in 2002 leaving the town of Goma covered and destroyed by lava. The people are still rebuilding their homes and lives today. However, with a bit of peer pressure and that adventurous spirit, I was persuaded to sign up for the hike. Why not?!

Mount Nyiragongo

Mount Nyiragongo

Looking into the belly of the volcano

Looking into the belly of the volcano

Freezing, but happy at the ridge of the volcano

Freezing, but happy at the ridge of the volcano

Also in our group for the volcano climb was Johnny from Ireland. Now if you want to hear stories about international adventures, Johnny is your man. He is currently on an 8 year mission to visit every country in the world. At the time of meeting him he was up to about 145 countries. How does he fund this you may ask? Well, a few years ago he was in a 9-5 office job which he disliked. So, he set up a travel blog/website and once this gained interest and popularity, it quickly attracted advertisers and he realised this was a liberating and exciting way to earn money. He recently celebrated breaking the $1 million mark for income generated by his online work. This is one of his websites; http://onestep4ward.com/.

Kim, Johnny and I

Kim, Johnny and I

The hike was tough, but chatting with Johnny and hearing his many stories from almost any country you can think of helped pass the time and keep our minds off the sometimes gruelling ascent and knee-jerking descent.

At our hotel in Goma before beginning the hike we met Finbarr O’Reilly, an international correspondent and photographer, who was based in Africa when Mount Nyiragongo erupted in January 2002 and arrived on the scene the very next day. He has been visiting and working in the DRC ever since. He has also spent time working in Afghanistan, Darfur, Niger, Somalia, Libya and many other ‘hotspots’ which have exposed to him to some of the most emotionally challenging scenes you can imagine. This is his photography website http://www.finbarr-oreilly.com/.

We also shared a ride with Finbarr back from Goma to Kigali and in the car with us that day was Paul. Paul’s job is to work in conjunction with the US State Department organising hip hop workshops around the world. The overarching mission of the project is to promote diplomacy, reconciliation and trauma relief amongst young people who have been affected by various challenges often due to war and conflict.

It was fascinating hearing about such a program and how it has achieved such positive results in a diverse set of countries to date. Paul has facilitated these all over the world and it was really very cool to hear about such novel and unique methods of providing assistance and support to young people across the world.

So, in the space of just a few short days I was able to speak with, and more importantly, draw inspiration from a fascinating collection of people. Our volcano hike group was truly international and this is what I love.

Of course, this is not solely reflected in this one specific trip. It has been the case everywhere I’ve travelled/lived, and it is one of the reasons the travel bug gets you. You never know for sure who you are going to meet, where they will be from or what their background is. The one thing you can almost guarantee though is that whoever you cross paths with at that particular time will have a new story to tell, a new place to recommend and an ability to open your eyes to a new perspective that you may not have considered previously. And that I have found is priceless.

During the hike

During the hike

Four Years Through a Lens


Almost four years ago to the day I began my random musings on this blog. In that time it has evolved from a predominantly word-based account of travels and the daily life of living internationally, to (I hope) an increasingly image-focussed reflection upon the diverse, distinct, and unique environments I am lucky enough to find myself in.

Two years ago I marked the second full year of this blog with a selection of images that captured the essence of that period.

https://johnstanlake.com/2013/04/09/two-years-through-a-lens/

Two years on again, I would like to repeat this exercise with ten carefully selected images from the period April 2013 to April 2015, which are collectively some of my favourites from this time and provide a small glimpse into another two years of travel, exploration, and life as an expat.


1. December 28th, 2013 – Angkor Wat, Cambodia

An incredible sunrise at one of the world’s most ancient and mysterious archeological sites. It is moments like this that make the cramped buses, early mornings, and days of unwashed clothes completely worth it.

John Stanlake_01926673013_Angkor Dawn_02_Silhouette


2. December 18th, 2013 – Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar

Taken as I stood on a bridge with the city of Yangon sprawled around me, this image sticks in my mind as the famous Shwedagon Pagoda seemed to be visible across the whole city.

Shwedagon Pagoda, Yangon, Myanmar


3. July 2013 – Prague, Czech Republic

I’ve never actually written about Prague in this blog, but it’s where my teaching life began in 2009, so it holds a special place in my heart. Visiting again in 2013 reminded me just how wonderful the city is. One of Europe’s finest.

Prague, Czech Republic


4. Georgetown, Guyana

My home for one year until June 2013, Georgetown (and Guyana) has a vibrancy that’s hard to explain in words. You really have to experience it to realise how the diverse cultures fuse together to create an intriguing country.

Homes in New Amsterdam


5.  December 2013 – Bagan, Myanmar

Sunrise over the ancient pagodas in Bagan. It’s hard to put into words quite how beautiful this morning was, so hopefully the photo provides some idea.

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6.  January 1st, 2014 – Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Spending the first day of 2014 in Ho Chi Minh City was a nice way to kick off a year that involved more travel and exploration. It was my first time in the south of Vietnam and I plan to return one day.

Ho Chi Minh City


7. March 2014 – Sandwip, Bangladesh

The photo may speak for itself, but Sandwip (a small island west of Chittagong) was a total joy to experience when I stayed there for a few days with a colleague’s family. This photo was taken one early evening, and it’s one of my personal favourites from any of my travels.

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8. August 2015 – Dartmoor, Devon, UK

It’s always nice to go home. Sights like this make it all the more worth it…

Dartmoor, Devon


9. July 2014 – Huye, Rwanda

This is less about the actual image and more about the significance of the location. Fours years after leaving Rwanda, July 2014 was the first time I set foot once again in the Land of a Thousand Hills. It was a special feeling to be back there, even if just for a week.

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10. March 2015 – Jessore, Bangladesh

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less travelled by, And that has made all the difference.”

– Robert Frost

Jessore, Bangladesh


 

46 Cups of Tea

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)


Rice paddies near the India border, Benapol.


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


Singar Mosque, Bagerhat

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

Daily flag lowering ceremony, Benapole border


  • 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…”

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Yes….this is a plastic T-Rex….


  • 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.”

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Baro


“Does it bother you that I talk so much?”

Asma

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.

The tea shop

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.”

Focus. Focus on the Monkeys

Before I begin this anecdotal blog, let me first say a very belated happy new year and all the best for 2015. Also, many apologies for the lack of updates over the past couple of months. The trials and tribulations of obtaining a new Bangladesh visa (which entailed a trip to India) in addition to end of term work pressure, locating homes for puppies, fun times in the UK over Christmas, and of course the usual lack of writing inspiration all conspired to keep me anywhere but on my blog.

However, inspiration always lurks ominously around a shadowy, unassuming corner, ready to pounce, and my recent decision to get a haircut proved to be all the inspiration I needed. I’ll set the scene for you if I may. The barber shop is directly across from my apartment building here on a narrow and often dim street in Chittagong. It’s a small, notably local establishment, and it seems to do ok for business. On the walls there are posters of ‘stylish’ men all with various levels of cutting edge/absurd hairstyles. One section is reserved for celebrities, who also offer an equitable level of absurdity.

Upon entering the shop you pass through a curtain and if you’re lucky, on the other side you’ll find a half naked man having oil rubbed into his back and in the middle of an evidently rigorous massage. If only one barber is working at that time, the rest of the long-haired men with tight shoulders wait patiently for the current customer’s knots to be worked out. This can take anywhere between 5 – 15 minutes, depending on the size of his shoulders and the severity of his knots of course.

On this particular day my luck was in (or out I suppose, depending on if you enjoy sitting through another man’s massage). My usual barber was stood outside and informed me the shop was currently empty, so taking opportunity of this, I entered. The television was on, and I was pleased to find that he was in the middle of watching Animal Planet and a fascinating documentary about monkeys. Jackpot. I settled into the chair and uttered the usual instruction of “medium please bhaiya.” He has cut my hair sufficient times now to know this means a classic short back and sides. A regulation haircut the fashion hungry men on the wall would no doubt scoff at. However, I’m a teacher and I already wear ‘gap yah’ bands on my wrist, so a radical haircut would be excessive and detract from the content of the class.

Things were going well. The scissors snipped at a productive and efficient speed, I enquired about his family, he asked me if I was married yet, and then we relaxed back into our shared mutual acknowledgment of the very evident language barrier. The monkeys on the television continued to display their humorous behaviour, and the documentary outlined their mischievous ways in the dusty city of Jaipur, India. Sufficient entertainment for one and all.

My barber’s colleague had re-entered the establishment by this point and was joined by another man who came and perched himself on the seat in the waiting area. He didn’t appear to want a cut, but was happy enough sheltering from the winter cold (comfortable temperature as I call it) outside, and his eyes were immediately glued to Animal Planet. The man had a sweater wrapped around his head and a heavy shawl around his shoulders. He’s largely irrelevant to the story, but I like the fact he seems to use the shop as a source of television. I presume this is the case as he uttered neither a single word to any of us, nor changed facial expression the entire time I was there.

Now, back to the tale. It was about at this time that events turned, and not for the better I should add. The cutting of the hair came to an efficient end. My barber performed a light trim of the beard, and as usual applied a razor to the lower back of the neck area to sharpen up the border. Great, well I’ll be off I presumed. A dangerous presumption it turned out as he proceeded to remove the lid from a small tub on the counter and placed a generous amount of an unmarked, bright green cream to his fingers. Without any word of warning he then applied this liberally across my face. I shut my eyes and cursed myself for not protesting sooner, but it was too late now. The green cream was there and he subsequently spent around five (it felt like twenty five…) minutes rubbing it vigorously over every area of my face. No nook or cranny was untouched. Now, I have a terrible habit of finding these types of procedure awkward, and when I feel awkward I tend to break out in uncontrollably awkward grins. This is precisely what occurred once the cream rubbing became too much.

Eventually he told me to bend towards the sink and washed off the cream. Relief abound, I again foolishly presumed the procedure was over. He made elaborate work of drying off my face and then kindly rubbed cologne over my freshly shaven neck. Well, I will at least walk out of here feeling quite refreshed and smelling good I thought.

I was mistaken about the walking out part. The fun had apparently only just begun. Once again without giving any indication or warning he sprayed water onto my hair and then proceeded to massage my head, twisting and pulling at my hair quite aggressivly and then pressing his fingers into my forehead and eye sockets. At that point I kind of wished I was one of those monkeys on the television at the temple in India. Freely jumping from wall to wall, stealing sandwiches and harassing tourists, but alas, I was sat here in a chair, a prisoner to this man’s grand ambitions of a full upper body massage. A massage that I had certainly not requested or envisaged only a few minutes prior.

He worked the face, and paid significant attention to my eyelids. Focus on the monkeys I thought. He stretched out my arms and clicked each of my fingers. Then he went for the sides of my torso and pressed and prodded. I squirmed due to the ticklish nature of the procedure, but he carried on regardless. By this point I’d gone. The situation was too much and my subtle grins stretched painfully to a resigned broad smile followed by very obvious laughter.

He glanced at me in the mirror and we shared a knowing grin. I think it was finally at this point he realised and acknowledged my comedic discomfort, and I presume this prompted him to abandon the next stage of the process. Thankfully the bottle of massage oil stayed firmly on the counter and I was permitted to exit the chair and make my way to the door. This was however not before he’d charged me four times the usual price! We debated about this for a while and then came to an agreement, which included a categorical promise that next time I’d come solely for a haircut and entertaining television.

As I left the shop that evening I felt like I’d learned a valuable lesson. I’m still not entirely sure what that lesson is, but I learned it all the same. I bid my farewells to the barber, his colleague and the stranger, and as the door slid shut I heard the rampant screams of the monkeys from Jaipur continuing with their reign of terror at the temple….

Here are two photos (in no way related to the story in this blog) that I took here in Bangladesh, which do show a fairly typical barber shop.

Heigh-Ho!


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 Welders

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The CNG driver

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The Rickshawalah

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Rickshawalahs


The man who fixes the rickshawalah’s wheels…

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The Boatmen

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The Tailors

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The Fishermen

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…and the man who transports their catch to market

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to the man who sells them at the market…


The Farmer

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The Produce Sellers

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The Butcher


The Ice Cream Man

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The Jeweller


The Carpenter

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The Cooks

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The Load Carriers and Goods Transporters

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And finally, the metalsmith

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Bhaiya, Cha Khaben?

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

The essentials

Watching the world go by

A small cup of tea and condensed milk greatness

Tea shop faces

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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!

Drink Tea for the Love of God


 

Green Grass of Home

The summer just passed brought about a number of reunions with good friends, familiar faces, and people who have defined recent phases of my life.

It began with a slight diversion to my usual route home from Bangladesh to the UK. A night spent sprawled out on a metal bench in an eerily quiet terminal building at Dubai Airport preceded a feeling of deja vu – boarding a Rwandair flight through to Kigali. The airport in Dubai felt disorientating as I contemplated a journey that began in Chittagong and would end in Kigali.

As I read ‘Inzozi’ the Rwandair inflight magazine, some very familiar emotions hit me. Upon landing and disembarking the plane, I would once again set foot on the continent of Afica and more specifically Rwanda, the country that taught me so much in such a short space of time.

Four years previously I landed in Kigali, and I had little idea if I’m honest of quite what the following ten months had in store for me. I needn’t have worried. Things have a way of working out and overall 2010 was a year that will undoubtedly stick in my mind for many positive reasons.

Before returning home to the UK for a few weeks this summer I spent 10 days back in Rwanda. Many people have since asked me how it felt to return to the country and quite frankly the only response I’ve been able to provide is, “Great…it was great.”

Not particularly inspring, or informative I’m well aware, yet that’s exactly how it felt. It was emotional too of course as I met with former students who are continuing to carve their own successful paths in life.

So, as in previous instances of being stuck for the right words, I will resort to images. Below is a selection of photos which sum up a summer of green hills, friendly faces, and of course…familiar homes both in Rwanda and the UK.


Rwanda

National Art Gallery, Nyanza

 

South Rwanda countryside

South Rwanda countryside

Sunset over Nyanza hills

Sunset over Nyanza hills

Sunset over Nyanza hills

Sunset over Nyanza hills

With former students

With former students

Kigali city

Kigali city outskirts

With former students

With former students

 


Devon

Dartmoor

Devon hills

Devon hills

Dartmoor

Dartmoor

Dartmoor

Dartmoor

Dartmoor road

Dartmoor road

Shaldon boats

Shaldon boats

Sunset over Torbay

Sunset over Torbay

The best walking partner

The best walking partner

Woodland walk in Lustleigh

Woodland walk in Lustleigh

Teignmouth Pier

Teignmouth Pier

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