Bangladesh – summing it up 

October 16 – 9.01am. Gate 1X at Dhaka international airport.  My flight is in 2 hours. 

My adventure in Bangladesh ends here,  where it started 2 weeks ago.  Just 15 days have passed but I feel I’ve been here much longer.  In these 2 weeks so many things have happened,  so many wonderful people have crossed my path.  I still cannot believe at what I’ve faced during my stay in Dhaka and surrounding.  Dhaka,  a city that I didn’t even know it existed, has stolen my heart.  And not for the city itself.  As I said time and time again,  Dhaka is not a beautiful city.  It’s not even a friendly city. 

 

Everything is a mess,  it’s dirty,  is tourist unfriendly,  it’s chaotic,  it’s hot but Bengalis  are the most amazing people I met in my life.  To them the guest is the king,  the guest deserves all their attention,  the guest has to be attended in every possible way.  The guest doesn’t have to miss of nothing.  

During my stay in Bangladesh I’ve felt like a movie star.  Never in my life I had so many pictures taken.  Strangers in the street,  at the restaurant,  in the park stopped me to take a selfie with me.  I have been stared at and scrutinized to the point of being uncomfortable.  But I felt like home everywhere I went. The Bengalis heart is bigger than anyone’s heart.  I’ve been helped by total strangers,  I’ve been given food and drink for free,  just for being a guest.  I’ve been asked time and again where I’m from and what do I do in Bangladesh (just visiting???  As if they could not believe that someone wanted just visit their country). 

Bangladesh,  where men go hand in hand on the street,  where the ads are still hand painted on the walls,  where having drinks means drinking tea at the closer “tong”, where there is no official bus stop and traffic lights are non existent, where Barcelona is know for Camp Nou (Sagrada Familia… What’s that?), where people eat with their hands,  has a special place my heart. 

But many of the people that have accompanied me these days have a dream to leave the country.  Usually to Canada or Germany.  I discovered that there is a big community of Bengalis in Italy.  Youth don’t like their country,  they wanna flee,  they believe that everything is corrupted and that there is no future for them here.  Government doesn’t make things easy for anybody.  This is a jungle (especially in the traffic)  and everybody tries to survive as best as they can.  

Once again I didn’t travel to the “best” parts of the country.  I haven’t been to Cox’s bazar,  the longest beach in the world,  I haven’t been to the islands or haven’t seen any waterfall.  But this place will always be special to me.  

Thank you Joy,  Shoshee,  Rossi,  Rasel,  Pryom,  Adnan,  Shammi,  Mukul,  Shariful, Dola,  Ishti and everybody else for making this trip memorable.  You will always have a friend in my.  I will never forget you. 

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Can’t find the words

I’ve been in Bangladesh for more than a week now and somehow I can’t find the words to tell my story so far.  To begin with Bangladesh make me think of several different countries : Laos for the poor state of the roads, Vietnam for the constant annoying use of horns to communicate in the traffic,  Myanmar for the men in “skirt” and finally India (although I haven’t been there yet) for the amount of people and the chaos everywhere. But at the same time Bangladesh is just Bangladesh.  Full of colors,  trash,  contradictions and most of all its fantastic people so welcoming and generous I have not words to describe. 

During my trip I have been blessed with the friendship of many beautiful people but Bengals are another story. Without them I could have not survived Bangladesh.  This place is a mess (I hope this will not offend anyone).  There are no rules and the few that have been enforced are constantly broken. In the words of one of my local friends “we like to break rules”. And it’s clear everywhere you look.  But then the generosity of people is something I have never seen in my entire life.  Bangladesh is a very poor country.  It’s story is a sad one and this relatively newborn country has been catapulted in the 21st century without any parachute.  People are noble but have no money.  Everyone dreams of travelling away from here.  Everyone dreams of going abroad.  Foreigners here are a miracle and I felt like a start here with the pros and cons that this carries with it.  People stare at me and I  mean STARE.  Sometimes I feel like an alien,  been scrutinized to check if I behave somehow differently. I also kinda learn how to eat with my hands (the custom here)  to feel less alien.  But still people stop me in the street to ask where I’m from and why I’m here as if they couldn’t even consider the idea of someone wanting to visit their country just for the sake of it.  They ask you very personal questions (how much do you earn?),  they’re extremely curious towards all that is “out there”. 

But the didn’t let me pay for anything.  They turn their place upside down to make me feel at home.  I cannot even buy a bottle of water because “I’m their guest” so they take care of everything. I’d been hosted mainly by students and unemployed and still wasn’t able to pay for anything.  

I’ve spent 2 days in Dhaka as I’ve arrived.  The city is simply horrible.  Once again no rules,  in traffic and in construction.  There is no city center and to do 5 km it can take you up to 2 hours. Despair has had the best of me a couple of times but there is really nothing you can do about that.  The streets are shared between cars,  rickshaw,   goats, CNGs cows and some stray dogs.  There is no direction for circulation.  You can go anywhere.  I thought I would die more than once here but apparently I’m still alive.  I’m so surprised I still haven’t seen any street accident but I guess they got very skilled at driving in chaos.  The heat is scorching.  They keep on telling me that I should have come in winter,  in a couple of months.  And I agree with them.  There are no trees on the streets so walking around during daytime is a torture. So I took an offer from one CSer to visit his university campus and stay with him a couple of days.  Jahanginagar university is an hour out of Dhaka and comparing to the city is heaven on earth.  The stretch of the area is equal to a small village.  There’s green everywhere and in some corner you have the feeling you’re in a forest more than in  University campus. 

 For a few days I felt I was back in school and for a moment I longed to be a student again,  when life was without worries and everything was still possible. Shariful and his girlfriend took me also to see the liberation monumentBaliati Palace and on a trip on the river. 

 Than one of my CSer host has invited me to Sylhet and there I  met a lot of his friends that have taken care of me as if I was a king.  We went to visit his campus far smaller than the previous one but still very green and an oasis comparing to the oven that the city is. Then Joy had to go back to work so I stayed a few days more in Sylhet where his friends have invited me to dinner at their place and prepared a specially cooked for me vegan dinner.  It was delicious!  Shammi is an excellent cook and very passionate about food. 

The following day they took me to Sreemongol where there is a protected area of a forest some 3 hours train ride outside Sylhet.  At the train station I was of course the main attraction to a point that it was very uncomfortable.  People were staring at me and kids were flying in flocks like flies to honey.  The train ride was an adventure by itself and once arrived in Sreemongol we needed to rent a local “van” to take us to the forest of Lawachara National Park

 

Once again as a foreigner I had to pay 10 times (literally) what the locals paid but it was worth it.  The park is beautiful and still pretty wild.  In it you can see a train passing through,  monkeys and if you’re lucky enough other wild animals.  Inside the park live some local tribe that are pretty much self sufficient with what the forest provide and from the selling of betel nut (yuk!) 

After the park we visited some beautiful tea plantations, a crop very common in this country, and we took the 8.30pm train back to Sylhet.  We were exhausted.

 

The Yangon miracle 

So even my time in Myanmar has come to an end.  Tomorrow I will be on a plane direction Dhaka,  Bangladesh.  I have to admit that I had a very good time here.  Myanmar is a very nice country,  I expected to like it and I haven’t been disappointed.  My time in Yangon has been a revelation.  I spent my days at Adrian’s,  a Filipino guy that have been living here for the last years.  He lives with a Filipino girl accidentally named Adrienne.  During the time I spent at Adrian’s and Adrienne’s I took part in a surprise birthday party (for Adrienne) a house warming party and to the FAB party,  LGBT community party in Yangon that takes place one a month,  last Saturday. 

So Adrian has taken all the pain to take me around,  show me the city, take me to the cool places in town (GekkoRangoon Tea HousePenthouseSharky’s) and then convinced me to go to FAB (never been a big fan of disco parties).  But I’m SO GLAD I gave in and went to FAB party.  The place was packed with LGBT people and friends.  The crowd is very mixed and people are there just to have fun.  In a way it made me think of my early years when I used to go dancing with my friends on Saturday nights. I haven’t done that for ages, until yesterday.  All the people met during my stay were there and it made me feel happy,  people were having a blast and so was I.  And I didn’t even drink!  There were boys and girls (and all that’s in between)  of all shapes and sizes and I was not even the grandpa of the party! 

Yangon and the people met here managed to give me even if for a while the sense of home, comfort zone limited in space and time that I needed. Now I’m ready to move on.  The time has come for me to move to another place,  time to meet other people, time to live another adventure. 

Tha Bar Wa

So.  My week as volunteer as come to an end.  Next Monday I will begin my vipassana.  I’m a little worried that I won’t make it but I don’t wanna call it off even before starting it. 

My week in Tha Bar Wa has been interesting.  I’ve met nice people and seen things that I couldn’t even imagine. Volunteering always gives me back the faith in the human race.  In a society where all that matters is money and appearance,  it’s good for the heart to see that there are people ready to work for free,  ready to give something in return for nothing if not in return for some personal satisfaction.  During my time here I’ve been practicing massage on poor people, suffering from hard labour and stroke.  It was good to give and get in return their gratitude.  It made my day. 

Of course not everything is nice and beautiful.  Life here can sometimes be hard,  hygiene is a different concept from what we think.  People are very clean,  they shower at least once a day everyday but then houses are barracks,  trash is everywhere,  animal have free entry wherever they feel like (there are plenty of stray dogs around here – and mostly are sick,  there are 5 cows and they shit everywhere). 

But life has a different rhythm,  people help each other,  nobody goes to bed with hunger.  And our help is very much appreciated. 

I had the chance to participate to the alms and see how people can give just for the sake of it.  There is no shame. You give what you can.  Being money or food.  Or both.  Someone gives an apple,  someone a bag of rice,  some a tube of toothpaste. Nothing is too little.  You give according to your possibilities. 

I also had the chance to see the other side of the mirror.  Monks are not necessarily saints,  they are people and for this reason they’re not perfect.  Far from it I would say.  And they are not necessarily nice persons,  they don’t smile to you,  you don’t feel your life is in good hands when you’re with them.  They live their lives detached from everyone else.  They don’t mingle. The first day I did the alms I was carrying the bowl for the money and the first thing that the “first” monk did after we finished the tour was to snap it out of my hands. And they are bit supposed to use money.  I was a bit shocked.  I would expect that from a priest,  but from a monk…. 

But still.  Even some of my coworkers have been here a long time and think they are “so spiritual” and feel the need to give you advice about meditation and detachment,  it was a good experience.  I like to see things with my own eyes and this time I’ve learnt so much.  On many different levels.  Now comes the hard part.  Vipassana is said to be a magnificent experience although very hard.  Another step to get to know me better I guess…. 

Smile, you’re in Mandalay! 

I really liked Yangon but it was time for me to move on.  I booked a bus to Mandalay and I arrived at the Four rivers hostel where I had booked a bed.  The place is nice and clean,  rooms are spacious, breakfast is good.  The bathrooms could do with some make up but it was a very good choice.  On the afternoon of the first day there I just walked around a bit to have the feeling of the city. Mandalay is not Yangon. 

 Motorbikes are allowed there and the conversations among horns made me think of Hanoi.  So after the relative peace and quiet of Yangon I felt a little attacked but the feeling soon melted away.  People are very nice in Mandalay.  The smile.  All the time.  They don’t see the white face as a walking wallet. Most of the time they just smile at you and then carry on with their own devices.  The second day after a good and abundant breakfast on the roof terrace of the hostel I rented a bicycle to visit the city.  Before the heat started (and it was already too late)  I decided to visit Mandalay hill and the temple on top of it.  I got at the foot of the hill easily as the city is plain (a part from the hill) and once I got there I wanted to get to the top by the stairway for pedestrians to reach the top.  But there was a little “lost in translation ” situation and by the time I realized I was going up hill with the bike it was already too late to go back.  So I made the best of the situation and just “hiked” dragging the bicycle.  Once at the top I was ready for a heart attack…. But I just bought a bottle of ice cold water and I sat for 10 minutes just to get back my breath.  I walked up some steps and I was in the temple. Su Taung Pyi Pagoda is an immense space all covered in gold and mirrors as Myanmar tradition wants.  There are Buddha statues of different colors and forms,  so many of them so that at some point I got dizzy. 

I thought than in Italy we have far too many churches,  Christs and Virgin Marys but here there are faaaar more pagodas and Buddhas!!! 

They way back down was easy as I just let the brakes lose and in 5 minutes I was down.  I went to the “biggest book in the world” the Kuthodaw Pagoda, and it was just breathtaking.  Thinking of the fact that it was all handmade it’s just mind-blowing! 

After that I toured around the walls and went for lunch at Nepali, a restaurant not far from the wall.  The food was amazing and cheap and the service five star.

The following day I booked a tour to visit Inwa, Amapura and Sagaing. Three small towns a stone throw from Mandalay.  Of course we saw Buddhas and pagodas galore. After Sagaing we stopped for lunch at this vegetarian place near the river.  There was just us from the tour and the place is very cosy and quiet. It’s called Himalaya and the food was amazing! 

After lunch we crossed the river to visit Amarapura and we got caught in the middle of a rainstorm and we travelled in a chariot dragged by a poor horse and got completely soaked!!!  It was fun. 

The day after I just packed my bag and waited in the hostel for my night bus back to Yangon to begin my week of volunteering at Tha Bar Wa meditation center.   

One night in Bangkok… or maybe four 

So.  My next move was to go to Myanmar.  I checked the flights from either Siem Reap or Phnom Penh.  The prices were ridiculous.  So I thought that probably it would be much cheaper to fly from Bangkok.  I wasn’t planning to go to Thailand again but I thought… what the heck!  So as I figured flights from Bangkok were 3 times cheaper.  

I took a bus from Siem Reap.  Travelling time 6 hours.  Wishful thinking.  Another 13 hours on the bus and I was in my host’s place by 8.30pm

The trip was not bad,  just VERY long even considerin the fact that we spent 2 hours at customs. My first host was Art, a theater director / actor and artist of many kinds.  Unfortunately his English is pretty basic so the conversation wasn’t fluid bit he’s been super nice and took good care to make me feel at home. 

My second host was Hall,  a Thai guy who lives for four years in Sweden.  Leo very kind and very careful to details,  dedicated to make the guest feel very welcome.  They both bought me food and took me out to dinner.  I also had one random girl buying me juice at the food stall.  This is why I loved Thailand so much last year.  Thai people are very generous and helpful.  That’s why even though I could have just spent one night in Bangkok I decided to stay four.  That’s why every time I come to Bangkok I like it more. 

Angkor Wat 

So.  My little bucolic adventure was… interesting. It RAINED  like crazy for the whole week I was there so I was not able to do as much as I could.  Roy is a very nice man from Britain who’s lived in Asia for many years and married this young Thai lady that spends here whole day cooking.  I mean literally – the WHOLE day.  And so their freezer are stuffed with food waiting to be served to customers that don’t show. 

The place has a lot of potential but it really need plenty of TLC.  The amount of spiderwebs present in there could cover the entire planet earth.  If you stand still for more than five minutes you end up completely covered in spiderweb. 

Due to the nearness of the river and the amount of rain that falls everything is covered in mould.  My backpack that rested on a bamboo shelf for the week was all spotted in white and had to was it straight away lest I would have to throw it away.  Your laundry never gets dry and all is wet.  But the atmosphere there is nice,  very quiet and relaxed and I could enjoy the countryside for a while and have fun with the animals around. 

After I left Ream yacht club I spent a couple of days in Kampot on my way to Siem Reap.  Kampot is a nice little town three hours south of Phnom Penh.  Nothing much to do here but relax and chill.  I had the time to go to a couple of places for food.  Once again I was craving for pizza so I tried my luck at “Ecstatic pizza ” (after reading the reviews in TripAdvisor) and the truth is that the pizza was not bad (for an Asian pizza that is).  Then the following day I tried “Simple things ” a vegetarian place high ranked in Happy Cow and although a little bit more expensive that the usual place or was worth it.  I had a veggie burger with fries and I had a hard time to finish it.  Delicious and the service was really friendly.  

The following day I had lunch at this Indian place run by an American guy.  It is called “Adwa I-tal kitchen “. The food is 90% vegan and it is delicious. 

It was time to hit the road again to finally get to Siem Reap and finally visit the famous temples. The trip from Kampot was supposed to last 10 hours.  But in a good Asian traditional way that was just a dream.  I arrived in SR almost thirteen hours after my departure all sweaty and exhausted.  At a certain point the driver decided that we didn’t need the AC anymore and he just cut it. The bus was full and the day was finally (!!!!) sunny and hot. 

We arrived in SR around 10pm and instead of dropping us by the night market as he was supposed to do,  the driver dropped us in the middle of nowhere where by chance there was a number of guys waiting for us to take us to town by tuk tuk.  (another tradition here…) 

I was furious and really tired so I refused to get left there and told the driver to take me to the night market. Thankgod I had my phone with me so I could check the way. Obviously he didn’t take me to the market but close enough to the place where I was supposed to meet my host. 

Chantha was working until 11pm and afterwards we went to his place and took a shower.  I was tired but needed some relax time so we went out and met some friends of his and had a beer.  For the following day I had contracted a tuk tuk to drive me around the temples.  The weather was really hot and sunny and I drank more than 2 litres of water. I actually sweat my heart out.  By the end of the day I was exhausted. 

But the temples are magnificent.  For the most part they have crumbled down and all the stones are laying around.  Men are working to rebuild them but it’s a long and meticulous job and it won’t be quick.  There was obviously a lot of people around but I still enjoyed the visit.  It was just amazing how theses temples were built thousand of centuries ago and they’re still there.  For the most part at least. Nature has made her way through the ruins and now gigantic trees are growing into the midst of the stones. I was speechless in front of such beauty. 

The visit ended at 3 and the rest of the day I was pretty much useless.  The driver came back at 5 to take me to see the sunset at the top of one hill where yet another temple is. After that I had some time to kill before dinner so I invited him to a beer. And he invited his friend.  And we went to a local place where his girlfriend works.  I they ordered a tower of beer (3 litres).  And I paid…of course.  And they asked me if I wanted a girl also…. The Cambodia way. 

The following day I moved to a hostel (the Pension lodge) as my host had another guest coming.  Two dollars a night can give you a pretty clean and decent place to sleep for the night.  During the day o organized my transfer to Bangkok to catch my flight to Yangon and then I booked the flight.  Now I’m waiting for the bus to Bangkok.  It should (should)  get me there in nine hours.  Fingers crossed.