Monday, July 9, 2012


After a little over a month of being cooped up in Dhaka, a group of four other interns and myself needed an escape. Per the advice of a fellow CMC-er, we ventured to Srimangal, a small town about 240 km northeast of Dhaka. Srimangal also happens to be the tea capital of Bangladesh. While planning this trip, I joked with my friends that this trip would be "the best weekend ever." In an attempt to avoid jinxing our get-away, the phrase did not catch on and we humbly proceeded with preparing for the long weekend. Since making it home unscathed, I can say that this weekend could quite possibly have been the best weekend I have ever lived.

The trip began with a 12:32 train ride at the Airport Railway Station. One of my friends had made friends with an German-born, Turkish expat the night before our trip, and after hearing our weekend plans, he cancelled his business meeting to join us. His indifference for cultural barriers and charisma initially shocked me, yet made me more confident in standing up for myself in this foreign country. Of course a huddle of six fair-skinned individuals beckoned a crowd of curious Bangladeshis and begging children. Our Turkish friend assertively hissed at the beggars. When they held out their hands, he shook their hands, joking with them. If they touched him, he picked them up, turned them around, and gave them a light spanking. Needless to say, I strove to keep my jaw from hitting the floor.

Our inhibition-less Turk made friends with a local Bangladeshi who had seats near ours and helped us navigate the frantic scene that pervaded the platform once the train arrived. Upon entering the train, we were pleasantly surprised at the accommodations which the Bangladeshi interns had warned us about. The cushioned seats, fans, and open windows made for an absolutely delightful ride. To explain the title of this blog post, these were the first words that came to mind when the train exited the outskirts of Bangladesh. From the moment we left Dhaka, the scenery left me speechless.
Could this be Lake Minnetonka? Maybe without the palm trees. The majority of the scenery actually reminded me a
lot of the rather flat Midwest terrain. Close to shore, you can see kids swimming. During the uncomfortably humid monsoon season, kids often keep cool by playing games in the 24,000 km of inland waterways. 
To prepare for the weekend, I gladly
accepted a cup of tea during the train 
ride. At a rate of 6 taka (about 7 cents),
this cheap treat of black tea and condensed 
milk hit the spot. Just above my cup of tea 
captures the ever-present intrigue of the 
local people. No, he's not sleeping.

When we arrived in Srimangal, I was delighted to only hear the jingling of rickshaw and bicycle bells. In Dhaka, a period of five seconds without a beeping automobile is infrequent. Within moments of hopping on rickshaws, the quaint town turned into waves of tea bushes, hills of pineapple plants, and  miles of serenity.

While our intern coordinator encouraged us not to travel to the tea estate region because of the flooding in Sylhet (the big city about 90 km away) and our Bangladeshi peers urged us not to take the train unless we scored a first class air conditioned berth, we did take the advice of one of the Bangladeshi interns who recommended staying in the Nishorgo Eco-Cottages. What a cool place. The cottages were erected as part of a USAID project to help promote income from tourism in the Srimangal area. If you know anyone planning to travel to Srimangal, they must stay in the eco- cottages. While they neither have air conditioning nor warm water, the powerful fans and hot weather make these accommodations unnecessary luxuries. Having arrived at about 6:00 pm, we spent the evening exploring the area around the cottages and indulging in our dreamy balcony, where we could actually hear the sounds of nature. With a deep breath of fresh air, I enjoyed my first pollution-free inhalation since May. 


At 8:30 am the following morning, we ate a classic Bangladeshi breakfast of paratha, chili filled omelets, mixed vegetables, mini bananas, and tea. Our first destination was the Lawachara Forest, one of Bangladesh's National Parks. The hike through the jungle-like forest was stunning. Filled with tall trees, critters, and villages,  I had never seen anything like it. A guide led us through the dense trees until suddenly, we reached a pass of small lime trees and mud homes. Its inhabitants were exceedingly friendly and followed us as we hiked through the hills. When we reached one of the homes, we saw they had harvested a number of limes. The family gladly gave us a half dozen limes, but when we pooled our smallest change together, they refused to accept it. Having spent a fair share of my time being swarmed by beggars, a sense of marvel fell upon me. 

I finally met some of my kind: monkeys! The monkeys
pictured are likely a species of gibbon.
A few weeks ago, when I went on BRAC field visits outside of Dhaka, I understood why people fled to city-life in Dhaka. Standing on top of a tall hill surrounded by a the lush Lawachara Forest, I suddenly became confused. When people move to the city, their purpose must be to make money to bring back to their families. The families that stay out in Srimangal, take in the beauty, and live humbly in their mud homes do not have this same urgency. They may make money selling limes to the village, they may not make any money, but they live peacefully together and enjoy their lives spent with one another. This made me question my purpose in life. Most of the kids I work with, including myself, have aspirations to alleviate poverty, feed the world, and eradicate diseases. In the process, some of us hope to make enough money to travel and achieve a high standard of living for our families. Although I was overjoyed to meet poor Bangladeshi people who did not want to take advantage of our relative affluence, it made me think twice about how I want to live. Do I want to be one of these people who lives to love my family and friends or will I compromise my time with achieving ideals and intangible dreams? Another year of college is not enough time to answer that question, even a lifetime. What I can say is that I hope I can live as humbly and kindly as these fiscally unfortunate because in my mind they are much more fortunate than the relatively well-off rickshaw wallah's and beggars in Dhaka city.  
View from the top of a hill in the midst of the lime farm. The flock of white birds had just taken flight, as if they knew how to make this scene even more beautiful. As you can see, this makes for a great place to contemplate the great wonders of life.
The woman sang to us from her hymn
book. We enjoyed the lovely view out
her back door: a 15-foot drop to the
ground and miles of tall trees.
When we reentered the jungle, our guide took us to a Christian village where a friendly woman hosted us. She gave us bettle-nut, a small red nut that one wraps in a leaf and chews to achieve a buzz similar to that of chewing tobacco. Many Bangladeshis chew it quite openly. The nut turns chewers' mouths blood red, creating a somewhat terrifying image. In this village, the society was somewhat matriarchal. Instead of women leaving their homes to live with men, the men moved in with the women. The woman we spoke with had four children, two boys and two girls, studying and working both inside and outside of Bangladesh. The woman spoke an unfamiliar dialect of Bangla. She showed us her Bibles which were translated into this language. She even sang us Silent Night from her hymn book and in her native language. We returned the tune in our native English 

Seven-layer tea! We counted.
At the end of the tour, we headed to our next stop: the Nilkantha Tea House. Here, the famous seven-layer tea was invented. Layers of cinnamon, sugar, lemon, milk, and three other mystery flavors entertained our taste buds. Followed by a short lunch, our drivers miscommunicated and our group split. Half headed to a Burmese village to collect locally made rice wine. The other half headed straight to our final destination: a tea estate which housed a breathtaking lake. We tried to conquer the circumference of the lake, but sunset prevented us from safely navigating the shoreline. Instead, we turned around in time to snap pictures of the sunset and befriend the vendors at the estate entrance. Because of the tall buildings, pollution, and monsoon clouds, this was the first sunset we had all seen in Bangladesh. Ironically, the red dot on the Bangladesh flag, pictured in the background of my blog, represents the sun. We had no trouble resting our eyes on the glowing sky as it melted behind the hills. We enjoyed the last moments of sunlight learning Bangla phrases and numbers with Bangladeshi children while enjoying the cha (tea) their parents had made for us.

Sunset on the lake.
On our last day, the group split again. Two went to the village to shop while the rest of us traveled to more tea estates. We had been warned that it can be difficult to access tea estates without connections, but we decided to take our chances. Our first stop was the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (BTRI). We walked down a straight path for what felt like a heavenly eternity. We turned into the BTRI Resort and sipped down a splendid cup of cha in air conditioning. Across the street, we tried to gain access to the estates, but the young guard would not let us enter. We continued down the endless path, admiring the charming homes, people, and animals. After a few kilometers, we saw a BRAC sign on a thatch hut and had to investigate. Around 20 kids stuck their heads out of the windows and enthusiastically greeted us. I promptly asked their names and explained that we worked for BRAC. They invited us into their classroom. Since the teacher was away on a short break, the kids looked to us for direction. A few girls in the class took initiative led a song to which the entire class sang and clapped along. Two girls danced, giving us a great show. When the teacher arrived, we thanked her and the students for their hospitality and left them to continue their learning. 
Impromptu visit to a BRAC School

As we left the village, young children ran after us waving and yelling "bye-bye." They seemed to use the phrase "bye-bye" as both a greeting and departing expression. Their earnest jubilation kept me smiling throughout the rest of our BTRI exploration. 

Our final stop happened to be my favorite stop of the entire trip: the Zareen Tea Estate. Here, the Ispahani Tea is grown, one of the most widely purchased teas in Bangladesh. The Lonely Planet Guide recommended visiting this tea estate, as it usually welcomes tourists. We sought the garden manager to ask permission to enter the estate. The empty office and friendly men working in the tea processing station spurred us to enter the estate. Shortly after entry, we met a man who was the uncle of a man who lived and worked on the estate. He beckoned his nephew to tour us around Zareen Tea Estate. At first glimpse of the nephew, I had found my purpose in life: to marry this adorable man and co-own a tea estate. Just kidding, but he was really cute and seeing the Zareen Tea Estate was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. Miles and miles of tea bushes wrapped around the hills. I wondered if this is where Dr. Seuss gained his inspiration. 

Our rather handsome tour guide leading us
through the steep, narrow paths between the
tea bushes. The pickers, likely barefoot, scale
these steep hills on the regular.
For a clearer picture of the tea industry in Bangladesh, the estates today are owned by Bangladesh elites or the government. When I asked our guide if he would like to own an estate one day, he said he was not qualified. Although pursuing a business education at the local college in Srimangal, he is not qualified probably because he is not in line to inherit an estate nor a member of the Bangladeshi government. Tea leaves must be handpicked; there is not mechanized method of harvest. Highly skilled workers, predominantly women, pick the bright green leaves which come in a set of three. The workers make 48 taka per day on this estate (almost 60 cents). 

If we didn’t have to catch our train that evening, I could have hiked through Zareen Tea Estate all day, all week, maybe even an eternity. During the tour, I was speechless. All I could say was, “Wow, this is beautiful. I can’t even explain how beautiful this is.” None of us wanted to return to Dhaka. We joked about disappearing in the tea bushes and cutting off our city contacts. We reluctantly packed up our eco-cottage and endured the 5 hour train ride back to Dhaka. Clearly in denial that the best weekend ever had ended, we missed our train stop and took a terrifying CNG ride from Old Dhaka to our places. Our driver last night was the craziest driver I have had in Dhaka. Normally vehicles follow the big shark little shark rules of the road, but this guy had no regard for trucks or cars. Speeding through small alleys, we soared over potholes, almost capsizing. At one point, I banged on the barrier between the driver and passengers, wailing to be let out. He thought this meant go straight (the direction I had been trying to tell him to go), so we finally headed the right direction down Gulshan Avenue. Funny how language barriers work. This rude awakening certified that I was back in Dhaka.
Striking a pose on the rickshaw while our drivers were M.I.A.
 Universal Studios should have cast me as E.T.

The weekend in Srimangal showed me a world I did not know existed. I fell in love with an enchanting place of serenity, solitude, and overwhelming beauty. After countless cups of to-die-for tea, one of the interns and me abused the phrase "cha koob moja cheelo" meaning "the tea is very delicious." This morning I learned that this phrase can also mean "very fun" or "very funny" depending on the context. Maybe I can even say "Srimangal koob moja cheelo." Before this weekend, I was not sure if I would ever visit Bangladesh again. Now I know that I cannot die before visiting Srimangal again.


  1. Amazing! Beautiful. (the tea estate AND the nephew!).
    And you look pretty darn darling posing as ET,
    Cheers, dear.

  2. Thank you Connie! I am so glad you are enjoying my blog and flattered that you think I can pull off the head covering.