Abdul did arrive on time, and we got to our train, and he insisted on taking us, even though we now had an additional 25kg, the combined weight of our two backpacks. His whole body strained and the rickshaw shuddered slightly each time he set off from a standing start. Mike tipped him generously, before we said our good byes and headed for the station.
There wasn't a single sign in any language, let alone English, to help us find our train. A young student helped us, and when we reached the train a guard took us to a sleeper compartment in the first class carriage.
On our India trip we always travelled second class but one of the 'advisors' in the queue the day we booked the ticket said that 1st class A/C was an absolute necessity on this train.
There were four seats each side of the ancient compartment with a pull down sleeper above. The upholstery was worn, red faded velvet, but it was clean. The windows were so dusty that we couldn't really see out at all. A distinct disadvantage for an eight hour trip, especially as we had been looking forward to enjoying the scenery.
I was just about to take a picture when another smartly dressed passenger joined us. We learned through the course of the journey that he was on his way to a Muslim shrine in Sylhet.
Soon after our arrival in Bangladesh we realised that the offer of tea is a welcoming gesture. Abdul had bought a couple of rounds, as well as the onion wholesaler I mentioned in a previous post and Iqbal was no different. The stewards periodically tapped on the door proffering snacks or drinks. We didn't take the food but accepted the tea. Iqbal refused to let us buy any, he just planted his palm over his heart and remonstrated,
"You are my guest!"
"But we're on a train, Iqbal."
"While you are on this train, with me, you are my guest."
Case closed. We accepted the tea.
After a few hours Iqbal asked which hotel we were staying at, he hadn't visited Sylhet before and didn't know of any places. We showed him our choice from the guidebook and he decided to join us, venturing that we could share a three bedroomed room. This took the notion of new friends and guests a touch too far for both of us and while I visited the toilet Mike dealt with his suggestion. A brief note on the toilet: now, obviously, one doesn't routinely take a camera to the facilities and in this instance, it's a darned shame I didn't, because words cannot describe this toilet adequately. I'm simply not qualified. Suffice to say it didn't look up to third class standards, so I shudder to think what theirs was like. Let's hope we come across another one for me to wow you with a picture and I'll always take a camera with me to the lav in the future.
When we arrived in Sylhet, Iqbal negotiated a CNG for us, (refused to take any money) and we soon arrived at the Surma Valley Guest House. The owner, a British Bangladeshi from Bedford greeted us enthusiastically and introduced herself as Helen.
In contrast to our accommodation in Dhaka, the guest house was scrupulously clean, not an insect, or dust particle in sight.
We went and showered while a delicious curry was prepared for us by her chef. The shower head was no ordinary shower head and I'm hoping I can upload a photo at the end of this post. It reminds me of a many headed mythogical creature. I affectionately refer to it as 'Hydra'. If you don't see it at the end of this post, have a look at it on our Facebook page. Motorhome Life. You can click on any of the Facebook symbols on this website to take you there.
We both slept well and the following day decided to take it easy and not do too much. We wandered around Sylhet which was a bustling, prosperous looking and lively place where we could enjoy taking in the sights and sounds.
We returned to the hotel at lunchtime, said goodbye to Iqbal, promising him that we would be in touch when we went back to Dhaka.
Helen offered to take us to her village for a visit the following day and we readily agreed. What a great opportunity!
In the evening, after supper at the best restaurant in town (not as good as the hotel food the night before) we presented ourselves at the Sylhet Station Club. The only place that serves alcohol, has been in existence since 1886, in the days of the Raj.
We were unprepared for the formality of joining (and paying to be members) of this exclusive joint. It did have an air of peaceful respectability about it and it was nice to be served by a smartly dressed bar tender in black waistcoat, bow tie and white shirt. The trousers even matched his waistcoat! Only one drink though, even though our hotel was only falling distance from the club.
The next morning, (today, so that's why my tenses are a bit muddled, if you notice that sort of thing), Helen arranged for a CNG to take us to see her village.
We crossed a small bridge into the village about forty minutes after we left Sylhet and Helen pointed to a small mosque. She explained that her husband had paid to have it built. (Later in the day Helen shyly admitted that she has set up and funds an orphanage for 250 children. We also found out from others that her husband is also ivolved in other philanthropic projects as well as being a councillor).
a few hundred metres after crossing the village threshold, we pulled up outside an enormous house. Helen jumped out of the CNG first and after opening the gate, welcomed us in, telling us to take a seat and make ourselves at home while she put the kettle on.
I don't want to sound gushy but we really have had the most wonderful day. Helen introduced us to her immediate family who lived behind the house. Their dwelling was in the traditional Bangladesh style and consisted of a long wooden building with a corrugated iron roof. It was divided into several dwellings, and each front room had a bed and table in it. No luxuries, purely functional. The women were working in front, sorting wheat. There was a communal seating area with plastic garden chairs, where we sat and drank glasses of Coca-Cola. Towards the front of the settlement was a large pond which Helen explained was used for washing (clothes and body), and swimming.
After Helen's tour she arranged for one of her extended family, a charming young man called Burhan, to take us on walkabout around the whole village. His English, learned from watching James Bond movies on television, was good enough to be able to explain various sights to us and give insight into village life.
The highlight for me, had to be the primary school. The children were out playing when we arrived as it was their lunch break. They all stopped doing whatever they had been doing as soon as they saw us. As we crossed their dusty playground they followed, Pied Piper style and when Mike got the camera out their excited giggles got louder, and they formed a group pose ready to have their picture taken. Hearing the commotion outside a teacher came out to join us and she too, wanted to be in the photographs. After the first bout we asked to look at the classroom and all the children rushed to their desks, and posed again.
We were invited into the staff room and the teacher explained that they had over 450 pupils and six members of staff.
We left the children to get on with playtime and continued with our tour.
All the farmers were working using traditional methods and the fields were mainly rice, although we saw lots of wheat laid out in the sun to harden.
The rice was being harvested and it looked like backbreaking work. The rice looked like long dried grass and the farmer grabbed a bunch of stalks at the base, cut them with a scythe and placed each bundle into a large woven pannier. The men carried two at a time, one on each end of a long pole across the shoulders. Backbreaking, as I said and many were able to continue using their mobile phones as they strode along with the load.
We were also shown the playing fields (football and cricket), the secondary school, another mosque and also met numerous members of Bhuran's extended family. His father had died when he was two and so he had been raised by his uncles.
They all welcomed us and we took lots of great photos. Unfortunately as I said earlier the photos will come later as I'm unable to upload them at the moment.
So that, my friends is that. I hope you're enjoying the blog. I'm aware that the posts are long but as we're not going to be coming this away again, and as the way of life and culture is so different to our own I want to write about it. Thanks for reading,
Ali and Mike
Ps. more photos on Facebook