12 December 2007
Long version: (and beware, it may be very long. Make a cup of tea or a large gin and tonic…)
I left you with images of Calcutta, I think. From there I made a trip to the underbans – a world heritage nature reserve, the Bangladesh half of which
suffered terribly in the cyclone, the Indian part was untouched. The bus journey was a brush with death for 3 hours, but from the moment we stepped onto the boat,
which seated about 30, though we were only 20, everything got much better. Wonderfully attentive staff, food and drink every hour or so, an ‘english-speaking guide’. I can’t say much as my Bengali is unpolished, but I struggled to understand
anything at all. We had to get up very early, 6am one day, 5.30am the next, but when someone brings you hot water to wash and a thermos of tea and breakfast to
your verandah, it’s not so hard. We only saw tiger tracks, before you ask, he got up about an hour before we did, but we did see spotted deer, crocodile, wild boar, and scores of beautiful birds, as well as having the privilege of seeing sunrise and sunset over this amazing part of the world. I recommend Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The hungry Tide’ if anyone wants a glimpse of life here. He writes better than I do.
Back to Calcutta and then on a train to Murshidabad, the ancient capital of the awabs and colonial architectural graveyard. A small town, beautifully set on the Ganges, with stunning buildings and ruins littered around the countryside. I couldn’t keep up
with the history – I’ll let you read the guidebook, which is beautifully poetic. Something about the fall of the Nawab empire ‘like the moon in the dark
fortnight’. Not much good on dates, mind.
And a lone dolphin surfaced two or three times just in front of my little boat as I was sketching…
From there I was adventurous. More fool me. I took a jeep from Murshidabad. 26 passengers and we weren’t even full. I don’t think we even had anyone on the
roof. That was absolutely the most bone-jarring ride of my life, when I actually thought my teeth were going to fall out. From there a smooth transfer to a
bus. One word :’Malda?’ and lots of gesturing and I found it, and 4 hours of sheer noisy adrenalin pumping slalom speed later we arrived in Malda Town. The
engine was so loud you couldn’t hear yourself think and the horn was in constant use at about 250 decibels. I gazed at the dozing passengers in wonder,and promptly fell asleep.
Malda was busy, but not unpleasant and I walked slowly to the station, in plenty of time for my 7pm train. Plenty. It was already 4 and a half hours delayed, and it was supposed to start from Malda. In the end we crawled into our bunks at 2am.
By 9am and a bit of sleep, we had made good progress and I was hopeful of arriving in Varanasi by evening – the due time had been 11am. Fool. Dad wrote something to me last time about ‘better to travel hopefully than to arrive.’ I travelled very hopefully and had my hopes dashed at every turn.
Fortunately it meant that most of the journey was in the daytime, so I got to see the course of the Ganges. Suddenly the plains seem much drier and dustier, and
the people even poorer. I don’t know how much of this is just impression, and how much the fact that the windows of Second class A/C are a mucky brown colour
to stop people looking in. Houses are more and more of mud, but some are quite grand affairs – two storeys and sometimes painted, and cows begin to be replaced
by herds of buffalo. It seemed much more reminiscent of Africa.
We eventually crawled into Varanasi at 2am, an impressive 13 hours late. I would like to say that 2am is not a good time to arrive anywhere, particularly Varanasi. I waited it out a bit in the ‘A/C first class lounge’ with sleeping, burping, snoring other passengers, mosquitoes and smelly toilets. Finally at 5am I couldn’t take it any longer and got a rickshaw to the hotel, where I couldn’t check in or lie down as the manager wasn’t in till 8am, so I sat on the steps of the Ganges and watched it wake up in the cold, grey dawn.
Think the brashness of Brighton, crossed with the steps up to Notre Dame, add in a farm, a zoo, a sewage treatment plant, an open-air crematorium, the most extravagant Catholic service you know with a team of orange-clad Judo experts performing with the Moscow Ballet, topped off with Cathedral bells and a
synchronized swimming competition…. and you don’t even come close. This place is indescribable. To be honest, I don’t much like it, but it does provide plenty of visual material…
The language of India:
a slight, almost imperceptible dip of the head to one side means, variously: yes, no, maybe, I don’t know, Is that all? What no tip? I’m trying to rip you off but I’m not really bothered if it doesn’t work, Thank you – it was nice doing business with you.
a quick up-and-down motion of the hand, palm down with outstretched arm into traffic means: please try not to kill me.
I’m sure I’m boring you, so I will stop and go and have a shower and wash the smell of burning bodies off.
On Saturday I brave the train and hope to arrive in Haridwar.
Some kind of bizarre paradox
29 November 2007
I’m now in Calcutta, and have been here for a week, give or take. What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said a million times? It is as full of people as you can imagine, but somehow keeps flowing, and other than evidence of rioting (the day before I arrived, something to do with the author Taslima Nasreen), there is seemingly no aggression, and it is far less bother than I imagined. The streets are full of little shops which seem to be built in cupboards in the walls – and they contain everything. 50cm up off the roadsurface (for when the monsoons come), you can
find a tailor, a fruit juice stand, general grocer, chemist, material shop, mobile phone shop, travel agent, shoe shop all within about 10 metres.
Calcutta’s buildings are big and were once grand – it still shows aging signs of it’s colonial past, and the streets are still washed, every so often, but the buildings seem empty. I’m sure they’re not, they just give that impression, broken windows, peeling and cracking facades…it’s on the street that life happens… People live on the street. They sleep on the street, they eat breakfast, lunch and tea, wash, shave, have haircuts, laugh, play, cry, piss, shit, and presumably have sex, give birth and die on the streets.
Walking over the bridge to the flower market I nearly stepped on a bundle on the path. My brain managed to make my foot move at the last minute, and as I
focussed I saw two tiny babies, laid out for a nap on a bit of rag, one of them couldn’t have been more than a few days old.
Even people who have homes eat at roadside stalls, and the welcome is warm and they are scrupulously honest.
Breakfast today cost me 6 rupees and then I sketched the boy who served me, and an old man chatting to him, ex-army, who then offered me another cup of tea..It’s
humbling. I have tried all forms of transport possible except horse and cart so far, and mostly they have been friendly and relatively efficient. The less it costs,the more they try to be helpful. Calcutta is some kind of bizarre paradox. The metro, quite frankly, is better than bits of the London Underground.
I have visited the Victoria Memorial and seen paintings done by artists who ‘travelled up the Ganges sketching and painting as they went’, so I’m not even being original…
I also visited St Paul’s Cathedral, where my great (x4) Grandfather (for those of you who don’t know) was Bishop and laid the foundation stone. The present bishop was sadly not there, but the Sunday morning Sung Eucharist vicar ( a fine tenor voice) gave me permission to take photos of the inscriptions and the interior of the cathedral, which is otherwise not allowed. The service was very Church of England, and the sermon started with some mention of Jesus Christ Superstar, but I lost the rest as the birds flying around inside made too much noise.
India seems more solid than Bangladesh. I can’t be sure if this is just my state of mind, but the buildings seem as if they could last another couple of hundred years at least, and the taxis and buses seem as if they have been here for that long. Bangladesh, especially since last week (I begin to think that the figures were not exaggerated, but India isn’t much interested) seems incredibly fragile. Calcutta’s
yellow taxis roar like tigers down the wide roads, its blue buses thunder like elephants with their loud, trumpeting ‘Tata!’. Bangladesh’s rickshaws twittered
like birds, but you felt at any moment that the whole lot could be swept away by a gust of wind….
My love to you all, wherever you are. And the blessings of all the many and varied gods and religions that I cannot possibly keep up with here.
Cyclone in Bangladesh
19 November 2007
Sorry, but this will be a short one today. You have probably seen some of the images of the cyclone that hit Bangladesh last week, so I won’t bore you with details. In Dhaka we just had a very stormy night of it and no power or phone for two days, but escaped the worst.
Yolande, the friend I am staying with, is working with the British Government on development and disaster management, so is involved in sending money to all of the organisations now working on the clear-up.
Though deaths are in the thousands, reports I have read in the European press are exaggerated – I have no knowledge of a 6 metre wave or of 10,000 dead. The last big cyclone killed hundreds of thousands, so I think that all the work to build cyclone shelters and the early warning evacuation programmes that have been set up are working. The main ongoing problem will be loss of the crops, which means the country will be reliant on handouts. These people are very proud and hardworking and I think this will be hard for them.
I went to the Liberation War Museum yesterday, which documents the 1970/1 struggle for independence. There were also newspaper reports of previous cyclones, one
in 1970 I think. Reading it, it could have been written yesterday.
I shall miss this country. Its people have been warm and welcoming and I feel I have only just skimmed the surface of life here.
Please keep the people of Bangladesh in your thoughts as they recover from this latest disaster.
12 November 2007
Called ‘The Rocket’, for reasons unknown as it takes 28hours, the boat is a once bright yellow Paddle
steamer, which runs between Dhaka and Khulna, stopping at several ports on the way. For any of you with maps of Bangladesh, don’t bother trying to follow the route, it is a tortuous up-down-left-right-east-north-south-west where sometimes the boat goes forward, sometimes backwards to get into the right river channel. It took us 1 and a half hours just to get to the port downtown, through rickshaws, cars, trucks and horses and carriages. The port is a seething mass of people with lugguge, though not threatening at all, and a row of ferries lined up with no visible destination marked. We boarded ours (the only yellow one) and
found our cabins and the bit of deckspace that we took over for aperitifs and dinner. As night fell (sunset
is about 5.30/6pm )we watched the endless small wooden boats ferrying people from one side of the river to
the other, dodging the departing ferries with horns blaring and the barges and tankers coming in. Quite
incredible that there seemed to be no casualties as the wooden boats have absolutely no lights to guide
them. We left at 7.30pm, to mournful blasts on our horn, past the city lights and the industrial areas of Dhaka
and on down the river. The night was hot and noisy, but mosquito-free (other than half an hour at dusk). The engine cranking, the horn whenever we docked somewhere, the people using the deck by our cabins as a dormitory. We were in 2nd class – rudimentary beds with sheets and fans, and shared pretty smelly toilets. Below us was Interclass, with the ship’s shop, a mass of people sitting or lying on cloths on the floor, and below them Deck class, inches above the water-line with no handrail, and a sea of people lying where they could, even sleeping right next to the engine, which was deafening. Toilet cubicles lined each side and opened directly into the river. People stare a lot, especially when I try to draw them, but are incredibly good natured and excited to see the pictures.
The next morning I woke to a kind of sticky greyness outside and another small port. I struggled out of bed and tried to focus my eyes which were still half stuck together in sleep. Convinced that it was too misty for a real dawn, and that I had missed it anyway, I was amazed to see the furry, dry, cool, red circle of the sun, like a piece of felt in old cobwebs, nudging out over the buildings… As the sun rises higher, the reflection turns from dull pink, to red, to glowing orange, to pure gold spun through fine grey silk. More colour creeps into the land and the water, grey and silver turn to green, blue, with flashes of colour from washing lines and the women on the bank. The water is milky – the great grey-green, greasy Ganges, all set about with brick-kilns. We pass forest, with houses set between the trees, opening out to paddy-fields, interspersed with mud and grass houses. All along the river-banks are beautifully maintained paths, for cows, bikes, carts, and people gently going about their day. Most people do not do the whole trip (as Dhaka-Khulna only takes 7 hours by road), so we got promoted to first class with it’s comfy armchairs and panoramic view from the bow of the boat.
Sometime in the afternoon we pass through a patch of 20 or 30 Ganges River Dolphins, small and quite square, with long noses. They are shy, and don’t play with the boat as other dolphin do, so it’s difficult to spot them as they just come up once and dive down again.
Slowly afternoon descends, the colour goes, the orange sun turns to red and sinks behind a bank of cloud and we paddle on towards Khulna. At points it is completely dark, then we see the lights of the bridge, and slowly the lights of the city. We go past parties on the bank in colourful marquees, houseboats, small docks, and finally into ours.
We are met at the port and taken by minibus to a rather swish (for Bangladesh) hotel with chandeliers in the garage, where we collapse into bed and sleep a deep sleep. In the morning we have breakfast and make the 1 and a half hour trip to Jessore Airport, past houses, trucks, shops, fields, schools, police training grounds, Jute Mills (Jute grows in the Ganges Delta) and finally to our plane. A 23 minute flight (with 4 separate snack runs by our energetic air hostess) later and we are back in Dhaka, the high rise buildings, the noise, the jingling rickshaws….
This afternoon I hope to meet up with some Bangladeshi artists and visit their studio, and I should be moving on to Calcutta at the weekend.
Dhaka on a steamy night
5 November 2007
I arrived in Dhaka at 2 am on a steamy night, and was met by a smiling Yolande and driven home in some kind of government sponsored 4×4 to an airconditioned house with garden and hot running water. I know I amspoilt, but I’m making the most of it.
We live in a privileged area of town to the north of the town centre next door the the American Club (who
refused me entry, as I didn’t have a pass) but you cannot really escape real life anywhere. I have spent
my days between playing with the children in the house (Olivia, 3 and Robert, 1 on Sunday) and walking into
town with my sketchbook and paints. Ruby, the wonderful woman who works in the house, has taken me
into town a couple of times to help me buy a Salwar Kameez and to take me to the market bazaar. Yesterday
she lead me through the slum area by the railway tracks, which she hadn’t seen herself. It’s
depressing and hopeful at the same time. Naked children running around the traintracks, women cooking
pots of rice or fish on the ground, wood and corrugated tin lean-tos along the side of the tracks
with a filthy foam mattress for 4 people to sleep on, but some had a plant of wild spinach growing up the
side of the shack, a baby’s crib had been made from a shopping basket and some rope. The train came through
as we were there, hooting all the time and going very slowly to give people time to pick their baskets and
children off the tracks.
The rest of town is just very busy: roads have buses, 4x4s, cars, CNGs (tuk tuks I think, elsewhere, kind of
3 wheeler metal minicabs), rickshaws, bicycles, motorbikes…. and the law of the road is hoot and
keep moving. It works amazingly well, somehow everyone manages to get out of the way. The women are
beautifully dressed in saris and salwar kameezes, always elegant and colourful, the men tend to wear
western dress, but the rickshaw drivers and workers wear lungis. The smell of the city is sweet and acrid
at the same time, smells of curry and fried snacks mix with the smell of rotting vegetables and dried fish,
and I’m glad it’s the cool season.
People are generally very friendly. I get a crowd around me when I sit and sketch, but they don’t bother
me, they are just curious, and want to try out their english. There are beggars, but they tend to bother
you more when you are in a car than just walking along the street, and I don’t feel pushed or threatened in
any way. Yesterday, with Ruby, we got invited to tea by the owner of the material shop I had just drawn.
This afternoon we are off on a 28 hour ferry trip, so I will be really on the Ganges…