Animal farm

Animals are not easy to spot in the Sundarbans. Tigers are essentially invisible, its mostly deer, monkeys, and birds. But at the Karamjal reserve near the north edge of the forest you can watch deer and crocodiles they have collected from poachers, and are getting ready to release back into the forest.

You can feed the deer; boys sell bundles of juicy grass. The crocodiles are kept in concrete pits, protected by wire fence walls and roof. Seems that these things are truly dangerous. We had seen a couple down in the water at the mangroves, but only the menacing back scales.

Sundarbans

Ok, back to my Bangladesh note backlog, written in the Sundarbans while I had no network and no idea about the developing crisis.

As a protected forest, there is very little traffic here. Fishermen need permits to go here, and they don’t like to stay overnight because of bandits. It’s never been stated explicitly but that appears to be one reason we have an armed guard on the boat. But we did visit a small village near the northern edge of the forest.

Corona in Berlin

It’s a nice spring day in Berlin, and birds are singing in the trees. The streets are unusually quiet, more like on a Sunday than a Thursday. A lot of people work from home. Many nonessential shops are closed. The supermarkets look pretty normal, and not especially busy. But two curious observations indicate that not all is normal:

People buy dry pasta like crazy. Look, I like pasta too, but this is excessive. I have seen five meters of shelves picked completely clean, while at one end four shop employees are restocking as fast as they can from a big palette. I can’t remember ever having seen an empty shelf in a supermarket before. And people do the same thing to toilet paper – surely they know that this a flu, not some form of vicious diarrhea?

I have researched pandemics carefully by reviewing scientific expositions like From Dusk to Dawn, filmed by the renowned researcher Quentin Tarantino in his usual quiet and restrained style. I am convinced anyway that this is not a flu but a zombie apocalypse, based on how people respond to it. And while Americans reach for their pump guns in times of crisis, Germans buy dry pasta and toilet paper. That has got to tell us something profound; I’ll let you know when I figure out what.

Escaping Bangladesh

There’s more to come about Bangladesh because I have been offline so long. But first, a realtime post about my escape from Bangladesh.

The Corona/Covid19 pandemic causes more flight to be canceled, passengers sent to quarantines, and countries closing their borders every day. My original plans to cross over into India and exploring the Andaman Islands became moot when India closed its border, but on the 16th of March it began to look uncertain whether I would be able to return home at all. First step was to fly from Khulna (actually Jessore, where the airport is located) to Dhaka. I would have preferred the train but none was available that day. Once again, my tour guide Arafat from Nijhoom Tours saved the day, and accompagnied me in Dhaka on my quest to find a flight to Berlin from there.

I don’t like Turkish Airlines much but they had a perfect flight from Dhaka to Berlin, via Istanbul. So I booked it and went to Dhaka airport at 4:30 in the morning. But they denied boarding because I have been in Germany in the past two weeks, and they summarily deny even transit in this case.

So I checked with Qatar Airways, whose hub is Doha. Unlike Turkish’s Istanbul, they consider Doha a hub, so while entry to the country of Qatar is proscribed, transit is ok. Qatar’s remote downtown office in Dhaka is closed due to a public holiday, and anyway looks like a menacing concrete block straight out of Blade Runner this early in the morning. So I got myself a room near the airport (Holiday Express) and researched options. In the end, with some difficulty, I got the Qatar flight online and rushed over to the airport to get paper boarding passes. (Qatar loves paper.)

I got my boarding passes but again was denied entry at the gate because there were so few flight itineraries still available that I had to route through Vienna, and Austria requires health certificates from travelers. (For visitors, not transit passengers, but they obviously couldn’t read the Austrian policy document because it’s in German.) It looked like I would have to return to my rented room.

But eventually I did manage to talk the security people into letting me board the flight to Doha, if I promise to change my itinerary when arriving in Doha. That’s quite an example of how solution-oriented Asians tend to be: what would the chances be to talk European security or the US TSA into looking the other way when a formal problem like that appears? But in Bangladesh they understood my problem and solved it. Praise to you, guys.

It took two hours in Doha to indeed change Vienna to Munich. That’s in Germany, and since I have a German passport I can’t be denied entry there. Indeed it took like 30 seconds to pass immigration in Munich and nobody said the C-word. From there to Berlin was a short flight with Lufthansa. They don’t even ask you to remove liquids and stuff at the security checkpoint; flying felt easy like getting on a subway once I reached Germany.

Germany, and Western Europe in general, looks unbelievably posh, elegant, quiet, immaculately clean, and affluent, even the undesirable bits near airports, when you come from a place in Bangladesh. Totally puts our usual first-world problems into stark perspective!

I am writing this article from home. The whole thing took two and a half days during which I barely slept, so if you’ll excuse me I’ll catch some real sleep!

Sundarbans trekking

The Sundarbans are mostly a jigsaw of tiny channels and islands, densely covered with mangrove trees. Still, there are larger dry islands like Jamtoola with a vegetation more like a savannah, and proper sandy beaches. And virtually no shadow in 40-degree heat. I got a slight sunburn through my cap.

The beach used to be mangrove forest too, until a typhoon washed parts of it away. There are still half-buried shipwrecks. The sand is glittering with silver silicates, they make glass from it.

We were glad to be back on our boat and its cold lemonade and cold shower!

Sundarbans boating

The Sundarbans are mangrove forest with a significant tide difference. The trees have aerial roots that poke up from the ground as spikes, mostly half a meter tall but some are as big as phone booths. The spikes can filter salt from the water.

Our big boat followed the main arms of the delta, and we got into our rowboat several times a day to follow the small side channels and look closer at wildlife. There’s less than I expected: many birds, mostly kingfishers; deer, some otters, but no snakes or tigers. There are too few Bengal tigers left to make a sighting likely, about one per 60 square kilometers. Even the cicadas were quiet and discreet.

We had with us a big guy with a fearsome beard and a big ancient rifle to protect us if something goes wrong. What that might be was never adequately explained.

At one point we entered a small channel, passed some bigger boats with motors that scared away all wildlife, to reach the deeper parts of the forest. On the way back the tide was so low that the boat got stuck in the mud. Two of the crew jumped out, up to their waists in the mud, to push us out for the last 500m. They made it look like that’s easy.

Sundarbans

The Sundarbans are a huge mangrove forest. I got on a small tour boat with two others and am exploring the place now. Hiking, rowboats, watching fish walk uphill. Internet is mostly nonexisting, first time I see an Edge signal in three days, so I’ll keep this brief.

On a rocket ship

Down at the Buriganga river in Dhaka, passenger ships leave for the delta. A few are special: century-old wooden paddle steamers. Only four are left. It’s called the Rocket because it was the fastest thing on the river.

First class is in the front, with a dining area and an observation deck at the bow. First class has a butler. Second class is in the back, and third class is a big open space in the middle where locals sleep on blankets on the floor.

The Rocket is a supremely civilized way too travel on the river, it feels like Hercule Poirot would walk in at any moment demanding to know who killed the countess.

All about Dhaka

Dhaka is not a tourist destination and does not have tons of attractions. Today I was trying to best to mop up what they have. There’s the modest Hindu Dhakeshari temple with the usual colorful paint and cast of deities, the modest Lalbag Fort Masjid in a large well-tended green park, the modest Star mosque with its beautiful white mosaic vault ceiling that a caretaker with an impressive white beard opened for me (baksheesh), and various other modest churches.

On the way back to the hotel I passed through Hindu Street, and it so happened that they were celebrating Holi, the Indian color festival. I have been at one twice before in India. It involves throwing powdered paint at everyone and soaking people with water guns containing colored water. Of course I didn’t escape either, and didn’t try to, so my cheeks and shirt are now a bright violet, green, and gold. Fun!

Taj Mahal

They have a copy of India’s Taj Mahal about an hour north of Sonargaon. Much smaller, less intricate, and somehow totally failing to inspire the grandeur and awe of the real thing, but it’s filled with happy people (more selfies) and a pleasant place to hang out and breathe.

You see, Dhaka is the most polluted megacity in the world. Beijing is number two. It feels good to just breathe normally out here in Bangladesh’s green countryside. If only the highway that my tuk-tuk used to get me there wasn’t packed with ancient large trucks belching diesel fumes. The tuk-tuk used the curb to pass trucks, sometimes leaning dangerously, except in that one place where a decomposing cow blocked the way. The informal traffic rules here also permit turning into oncoming traffic, which then somehow manages to avoid a collision. Usually. Eventually I had to head back to Dhaka, and as always, friendly people helped me find the right bus.

Ghost town

Sonargaon is the former royal city of Bangladesh, 300 years ago. It’s now a modern town an hour east of Dhaka, but a cluster of 52 magnificent mansions were preserved in an archeological park. Most are more or less in ruins, but the place still has a strong Indiana Jones vibe to it. Most mansions had a sign “risky building” but there are very few fences or locks. I got a guide who actually lives in one of these buildings, who took me up to the high terraces.

As before I am the only European visitor. Everyone else is from Bangladesh, mostly students. And they all want selfies. My mean free path between selfie requests was something like 20 meters. Everyone was very polite about it, used their finest English, and handed smartphones around. I should charge for this.

Dhaka in Bangladesh

We all know Bangladesh as the place where the T-shirts are coming from, but of course there’s more to this country than that. I am in Dhaka, the capital with a population of 17 million. It’s an incredibly busy, loud, and colorful city, yet still very much developing. Everything is packed with bicycle rickshaws and buses so beaten up that there isn’t a straight line on any of them.

Down at the river, where wooden boats and rickshaws and even a few trucks are loaded and unloaded, it’s so packed that it’s impossible to even stop anywhere; the mass of humanity pushes everyone along. Normally it’s a good thing that I am a head or two taller then everyone else, but here that’s a problem because I can’t squeeze through the smallest gaps or get hit in the head by people carrying baskets on their heads. Chaos!

I have seen no other tourist today. This place is truly undeveloped. People call out to me all the time, smiling and doing their best to chat in English. The few who have smartphones want selfies with me, all the time. Especially around the former palace, now a very dimly lit museum with some stuff in it. I am grateful for the brief respite from Dhaka’s maelstrom of people and rickshaws!