9 May. 7.13am, Sylhet, Eastern Bangladesh.
Yesterday was one of those days where I wondered how I was going to fill in the time until the train came at 3.20pm, but ended up being a day where I ran out of time.
If I haven’t really found much to do in a town, my time honoured approach is to get out and walk, something usually happens for me and yesterday was no exception.
I decided to walk through the City and just fill in time. I thought I would get bored with the same old stuff, but just kept on walking.
On the outskirts of town I was getting passed by more and more school kids coming into town, it was 9.45am and they must start at 10am??
Lots of smiles and “how are you” comments followed by giggles when I answer that I am fine. Sometimes people cock it up and their first comment is “I am fine thank you”, which always makes me smile, at least they are trying which is more than us English speakers can say.
Eventually a slightly bigger Muslim girl was walking towards me and surprisingly she gave me a “hi” type of wave – they are normally very reserved so I was surprised, I said Hi and she stopped to chat. I described her as bigger, because she was bigger than the other kids who were approximately 8-9 years old, the younger girls had no head coverings but this bigger girl was covered and since all I could see were her eyes I don’t know how else to describe her. Anyway she was very friendly and chatty – she was 16 and had just finished an exam. Her English was passable and we chatted about her Family, her studies (she eventually wanted to be a Doctor), and I answered the usual questions about what country I was from and where have I been. Interestingly on this side of Bangladesh not one person has asked me what religion am I. Also interesting that on the other side of Bangladesh there has been yet another terror attack in Rajshahi (where I stayed) and another person has been murdered by ISIS – but they are people of religion or Teachers that are getting bumped off, it seems that there are extremists in that part of Bangladesh who are bumping off people that are not fanatically pro Islam.
I have found the people of Bangladesh to be among the friendliest people I have ever encountered and wouldn’t hesitate to come back – there are madmen everywhere, but in a population of 160 million you are obviously going to have more incidences of trouble, but percentage of population wise, I doubt there are any more being bumped off here than at home.
I digress, so while I was chatting to the Muslim girl, another young girl in school uniform was hanging around close by and smiling – she was 9 and unveiled. She was waiting her turn patiently to say hi. The 16 year old was walking back into town and wanted me to walk with her so she could practice English but I had just come that way so politely declined and she went into town as I carried on my way out of town.
Far from continuing my stroll on my own, I now had the 9 year old girl as my new accomplice. She was very friendly and slightly over the top excited to be in the company of a white man. At first she seemed to invite me to her school, she was so excited I couldn’t refuse, but after wandering down some back street semi rural lanes a man on a pushbike stopped and in broken English asked where were we going. I tried to explain that I thought we were going to her school, but it turned out she wanted to show me her home and meet her family.Every 5 steps, or so it seemed, she would look at me with a big smile and with her excitement growing every minute we proceeded further down the lanes towards her home. She said hi to everyone we passed and no one seemed in the least worried about a 9 year old girl walking with a stranger (imagine that in NZ!).
After about 10 minutes her excitement reached a crescendo, and she pushed open a metal gate and we entered the area that she, her family and 9 other families lived.
I was introduced to everyone in the communal housing area, and they all came out for a look at the white man. They were all incredibly friendly.
I was ushered into the girls house (a 1 room area with a small table and a long bed that the Father, Mother and their 3 children all sleep on together), all under a tin roof with 3 walls made of corrugated iron and the fourth a mud wall, The floor was mud also. There were no windows and it was very dark, and very very hot. The whole place would have been no more than 3 meters by 4. There were 9 families living in 9 rooms all side by side. It was real poverty, but they were so nice to me. The little girl motioned for me to sit on the only piece of furniture in the place – a plastic seat, and then told me to wait. She pointed at me and said wait, pointing each time at least 5 times, repeating “wait” each time until she was confident I would not move, then she left.
Her Mother stood there staring at me from inside the room, while at the door another 5 women and their kids stared at me from outside. I was like an exotic animal in a zoo, but I am interested in them so it’s only fair I am available to satisfy their curiosity also.
After a couple of minutes the girl returned with 2 bottles of cold mango juice and some bread stuffed with Mango. I felt guilty for them spending money on me, the girls excitement had almost reached fever pitch and she babbled away about chickens, her father, her friends and lots of other things that I couldn’t decipher, but smiled at all the same. Then her Father arrived, he said maybe two words and never smiled the whole time. Turns out he is a policeman (obviously off duty today), he was putting on his stern, tough guy face. I tried to get him to lighten up but got no reaction so gave up on him. He disappeared after a few minutes.
I was clearly in the midst of abject poverty, and they had gone out of their way to
make me feel welcome buying me drinks and food. I decided that I had found a worthy recipient for some of the money that I had saved yesterday by downgrading my accommodation choice from flash to semi average. I gave the girl 1000 Taka which is equal to about 4 days wages. The little girls face turned to shock, she wouldn’t take it and started crying, as did her mother. I told them it was for shoes and school books, her mother pulled out the girls school bag and it was falling apart – she indicated she would buy a school bag also and I gave a thumbs up. NZ$18 – yet such a difference to peoples lives. It is a fine line with giving money – you don’t want to encourage a begging culture, or create the impression that every white person is a target to beg at, so I never give to people that come up to me asking. I give to people I identify as needy. NZ$18 is nothing to us, but is huge to them.
Anyway the girl wanted to take my photo on my camera, so I explained to her what to do and let her take some photos, she was so excited and wandered around taking photos of her friends and other family members.
Finally I decided I needed to leave, my morning had gone fast and I still had another mission to complete before my train arrived at 3.20pm. She accompanied me as I backtracked down the lanes and then she annoyed me. She asked for more money to buy an ice cream, and then pointed to her uniform and shoes saying please could I give her more. Had I not passed her when she was going to school she would have had nothing, I had given her 1000 Taka which is a large amount for a local, and now she wanted more. I gave he a stern talking to, told her if she wanted an ice cream she had 1000 Taka and she could buy one. She started to get grumpy because I wouldn’t buy anything more, and I wondered if already I had done the wrong thing by instilling in her the beginnings of being a beggar.
She lightened up once she realised she had all she was getting and I had to do a detour to her school. The usual pandemonium ensued when a stranger enters school. I stayed for 10 minutes before saying goodbye to everyone. I left the girl at school and wandered back to my Hotel to get my bags.
Once I had loaded my bags (one on the front and one on the back), I walked 1.3 ks in the sweltering heat to the outskirts of town in the other direction to a Tea House that served the famous Srimangal 7 layer tea.
Bangladeshis will travel hours to the sleepy town of Srimangal, in Bangladesh’s northeast, just for a cup of Romesh Ram Gour’s famous tea. In a country of avid tea drinkers, Mr. Gour is the inventor of a seven-layer tea which, he claims, no one else has been able to replicate. Copycats in the region have succeeded in creating five-layer teas, but none have been able to unlock the secret to Mr. Gour’s rainbow brew.
Mr. Gour invented his colorful layered teas 10 years ago, when he was selling tea from a bamboo shack. He says he realized that teas from different leaves have slightly different densities. It took a year of experimenting before he could sell teas with more than two layers. Over the years, he learned to expand to seven.
The kind of layer tea Mr. Gour makes is unique to the Srimangal area. An iced three-layer tea has become popular in the Malaysian state of Sarawak, but those drinks include one type of tea and are typically layered with palm sugar on the bottom, evaporated milk in the middle and tea on the top. What makes Srimangal’s special are the discrete layers of tea blends.
Mr. Gour mixes different types of locally grown tea—three black teas and one green tea— from four types of bushes, with milk and various spices. Each mixture has a distinct color and taste, and he pours one on top of another to create seven distinct bands. Customers sip each layer slowly: Trying to figure out what’s in each one is a fun act of detective work. The top layer of the seven-layer tea has hints of cinnamon; the layer below has a slight citrus flavor to it. Mr. Gour says the fourth layer from the top and bottom layer get the most reaction from his customers. The fourth layer is a black tea mixed with condensed milk, while the bottom layer is a sweet, syrupy green tea with cloves, cinnamon and “secret spices.” (Customers can choose to have one to seven layers of tea in their drink.)
In a country that consumes more than 55 million kilograms of tea leaves a year, Mr. Gour’s layered tea has turned him into something of a celebrity. He has shared a cup of his tea with many of Bangladesh’s top politicians, including members of Parliament and the governor of Bangladesh Bank. Bangladeshi newspaper clippings about his tea cover one wall of his open-air shop. In January, he opened a second tea cabin, just down the street from his first one.
A seven-layer drink costs 75 taka, NZ$1.80. It may not sound like much, but most cups of tea in the area cost about 10 cents.
Just how, exactly, Mr. Gour layers the tea is a closely guarded secret. Mr. Gour heads to a back room so he can make his concoction away from prying eyes. He has trusted the recipe to his three sons and brother who work at the shops—only the five them are allowed into the tea-preparation room. Though imitators have popped up around town, offering their own layered teas, Mr. Gour is leading the competition with most layers. He says after years of practice, he will release a 10-layer tea later this year.
So, is the tea worth the trip? With its varied flavours, tea connoisseurs are bound to find at least a layer or two they like. The fourth layer from the top stood out with its strong spices, likely some mixture of ginger and cinnamon in a black tea, while the popular bottom layer was a bit on the sweet side (though would have tasted great as a syrup on ice cream). Mr. Gour claims the flavours “will live with you a lifetime,” but it’s more about the experience – and drink — as a whole: the mystery of the ingredients, the rows of tea bushes just outside the shops and the chance to drink from the hands of a Bangladeshi tea master.
While I was there I chatted to the locals having a cuppa and outside got swamped by more school kids.
Then it was back to the railway station 500 meters up the road where I waited for 1.5 hours in sweltering heat waiting for the train. It is election time and there were armed soldiers and police everywhere. In areas where I am likely to get over swamped by people I wear the cap and shirt I was given by the police commissioner in Joypurhat. They have police logos on them in Bengali. I tell them I am working for the Bengali Police and they seem to give me more space thereafter. At one point I had a suspicious creepy looking dude staying too close too long staring at me. He spoke no English, but someone else in the crowd spoke a little so when asked what was I doing in Bangladesh I explained I was training the Police and Army special forces in weapons and martial arts. I then made the man interpret that to the group. The scary dude looked at me, I stared him out and he left. Mission accomplished!!
The train came 20 minutes late, and despite booking my tickets the day before I couldn’t secure a seat in the better class of carriage so I had to sit with the poor for the 3 hour journey. It was no problem and I found another worthy recipient for some more money. The trains are full of beggars, blind people who have no eyes, just holes in their heads, people that drag themselves along without legs, and endless old people and religious folk wanting money for their Mosques – all in the name of Allah. I give to none of them as they know how to extract money from the travelers. Worst one on that trip was the woman who get stroking my feet and grabbing my legs asking for money.
Sitting directly from me was a young Muslim married couple. They were poor, and nice. I shared drinks and they shared their popcorn with me (not that I like popcorn). She had an eye slit Burka on so I was interested to see how she would eat, but she just flipped it back over her head exposing her full face and ate away. She was obviously comfortable in my presence as she didn’t pull it back down again until they got off the train.
Just before they got off the train I slipped a tightly folded note into her purse and smiled at her, she closed her bag without seeing what I had given them, but they would have been happy. More savings from staying cheap the night before given away!!
The train cruised through the afternoon and into a beautiful sunset before eventually arriving at Sylhet after dark, I tried to haggle a tuk tuk down from 150 Taka to 100 for the short ride but to no avail, so to save 50 Taka (NZ.80 cents), I decided to walk the couple of ks in the dark to the Hotel, which I did, arriving in an absolute lather of sweat at 6.30pm.
Quick delicious dinner, then to bed, popped a sleeping pill for a really good nights sleep and that was my day.
My journey home starts with a 2pm flight from Sylhet to Dhaka. 12.25am flight to Kuala Lumpur then a 17 hour layover before flying to Sydney then home.
Bangladesh is pretty much a done deal.