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.
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.
|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.
|Seven-layer tea! We counted.|
|Sunset on the lake.|
|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.
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.