The title of this column is a reflection of my realisation that I have had in my recent tour to southern Bangladesh. In a four-day four-night hurricane trip I covered the Barisal division from Barisal itself to Kuakata and from Jhalakathi to Nalchiti, and the sights and sounds that filled up my trip suggested to me that Bangladesh has grown widely awake both in ways and means and in movements and conversations.
The tourism culture has taken off. We travelled from Dhaka to Barisal by the Green Line services that had a ship fabulously built for tourism purposes, with only chair coaches and no sleeping cabins and glass panels on both sides that allow full view of the river and the river banks, and I was reminded of the pleasure yacht once the Greek tycoon Onassis, the later husband of Jacqueline Kennedy, used. The ship only took six hours to reach its destination, Barisal.
This was my second visit to Barisal, nearly 24 years after. At the time Barisal looked to me a sleeping small town with only a square-shaped pond in the centre of the city to boast of. In place of the shabby broken roads that my memory still retained, I found the roads now laid with a new pitch, and the pavements on both sides for pedestrians were also newly built, and there were quite a number of restaurants providing standard meals to visitors.
We were five in the group and had found accommodation in the Circuit House. The old building from the British period has been added with a modern-built multi-storied house, which displayed projected balconies with every room. I was given accommodation in the main suite of the old building, and, believe you me, the room was so big that I could understand what the British meant by the empowerment of their top-notch bureaucrats, who must have been the usual guests to occupy the room. And the bathroom was even bigger than any other bathroom I had ever used. There was a fancy bathtub in one corner of the room, but it was not a bathtub that we usually see, it was more like a Jacuzzi, made of marble stone. The feature might have been a recent addition as the shiny border walls gave indication of, but unfortunately the elderly officials who put themselves up in the Circuit House as VIP’s do not probably fancy taking a body-wash in the Jacuzzi, and the provision had gone out of use probably since the day after it was built. I was shocked to discover that the water-pipes had got loosened off and dirty dots spotted the otherwise smooth stones.
It takes nearly three hours by a microbus to go from Barisal to Kuakata, the second upcoming sea-beach of the country after Cox’s Bazar. We had to cross three middle to big-sized rivers by ferries, and as the day flushed with clear sunshine, the river water sparkled white. The rivers in southern Bengal are much wider, and from the ferries the distant banks look always to be disappearing from sight. The river Payra was impressive especially with a u-turn bend somewhere. A bridge spans over the first bend, while the second bend has to be ferried over. By lunchtime we reached the Hotel Beach Heaven in Kuakata. The manager was an acquaintance of one of us and he offered us a sumptuous lunch with fried pomfret.
After resting for a while we walked out to the beach. A first look at the sea from the beach will surely disappoint any visitor to Kuakata. I’ve seen sea-beaches in some parts of the world, but nowhere did I see any beach so much quiet. The sea at the Kuakata beach is like a big pool of water standing still, with absolutely no waves. The locals tried to boost our feelings by saying that when the tide comes the waves are formed, but that sounded very unlikely. And in fact the next morning we saw not waves but some ripples forming like thick bands of ropes rolling towards the coast.
But the Kuakata beach stands out for its remarkable geographical position as it offers both the sunset and the sunrise to the view. One of my men told us that it was a unique beach having such a rare gift from nature. We enjoyed the sunset by strolling on the beach and taking snaps with our mobiles. I rued the fact that with the ban on Facebook, we were deprived of the opportunity to instantly upload our pictures to be viewed by a greater number of friends and acquaintances. The next morning we woke up very early as there were escorts waiting at the hotel gate to take us by their bikes to that vantage point of the beach from where the sunrise could be seen. It was chilly in the November morning and the bikes ran on the wet sandy beach at a great speed, while negotiating the water-splashed tracks by slowing down. The dark curtain of the night was yet to lift and the sea on our right was as calm as it was the evening before, with a chilly blast of wind sweeping towards us from over the sea. On our left a long line of green trees ran in parallel with us and blocked the passage of the wind, thus reducing the intensity of the cold. But, occasionally, the green forest on the left disappeared and then in the open the chill of the wind assaulted us hard.
After covering a distance of 20 km or so our bikes stopped in front of a shanty tea stall manned by a bearded elderly man. It was difficult to imagine that in the midst of such a deserted beach somebody would run a shop to sell tea and snacks to the sunrise viewers. Just past the shop there was a lagoon which two ferry boats helped the bikes and the riders to cross over in order to reach the next destination, the crab beach. This is where the beach looked most sublime as the wide spread of the sea touched the horizon from end to end. A band of dark clouds still persisted in the eastern sky preventing the sun from coming out. Some bands of clouds, however, took on the crimson colour, and suddenly a little distance above the horizon, cracking the clouds open, the sun peeped, clear and absolute, just a round red disc without any frills. My heart throbbed at such a beautiful sight, and I knew that I never saw a sunrise from the sea. This also came to my mind that the sunset that we had viewed the previous evening was not as beautiful as the present sunrise was.
We waited for the red crabs to come out of their holes, as they should do with the day warming up. But we were rather too early for them, and decided to ride back without seeing them. The beach opened out on a park of mangrove trees, which really deceived us with the impression that as if they were manmade. Some of the tree tops were missing and the remaining stumps provided cushions to sit for an ideal pose of a nature lover. Our mobile cameras clicked and clicked. The sand beneath our feet was glassy and powdery, and we wouldn’t have left the place if the bike men hadn’t told us that our time was over.
The writer is Vice Chancellor of Jatiya Kazi Kabi Nazrul Islam University, Trishal, Mymensingh