Christmas in Bangladesh

I arrived in a place that felt like India and Saudia Arabia had collided. As a traveller, I experienced it the same way I experienced Lagos, an overwhelming, chaotic, crowded filth of a poverty stricken, mega city. It was a place where people’s faces were a blend of Indian and South East Asia, all the while still feeling a little middle eastern. I saw some Burmese faces, smelled clove cigarettes, and ate things authentically Bangla that I swore I had eaten in Mumbai. The alphabet had changed from Hindi and all English had been subtly dropped, even the numbers didn’t make sense.

rikshaw ride

The rickshaws were actually the tricycle pedal bikes, where anyone seated looked like a regal passenger endorsing modern human (paid) slavery. The Indian style rickshaws had been downgraded to dull, green cages. I didn’t understand why until I rode in one, and realised that it was safer to be locked in from the crowded streets and angry pedestrians and over-worked human pack donkeys.

ubering thru the streets, with election advertisements overhead

They have Uber here, on motorcycles, and I took an 8 km ride across town as someone’s first ride, breaking in his brand-new passenger helmet. He was nervous, not only because he was new on the job, but because I was the only foreigner for miles, a female, and directing him where to go since he had no idea and hadn’t thought to get a phone holster for his bike to follow directions.

pedal boating on the river

I took a sunset boat ride on the Buriganga river, which was, without exaggerating, as black as tar. Only the setting sun put a twinkle of lightness in the water, which was the top layer of oil and petrol shimmering like a greasy rainbow. I suddenly became hyper aware of the fact that I don’t have black hair, and being brunette with any sun kissed streaks meant I wasn´t local. I was a foreigner, no matter what I wore, and covering my hair wasn´t enough since the tone of tanned skin isn’t the same as having dark skin. I couchsurfed with a much whiter, larger Turkish man, but luckily for me, he had two local Bengali friends to show me around while he worked, and their presence made me feel a little less noticeable.

my christmas family

They have a funny way of peeing, the men do. They squat like a female and wee with their little man out of sight, but I wondered then if they also deal with the same splatter back problem women do when squatting too close to the ground to be discrete. I visited the deserted town of Panam and took another sunset boat trip where we couldnt see the sun and had to row ourselves. That was when I realised two out of four of us were afraid of water and didnt know how to swim. That kind of stuff doesn´t get lost in translation no matter how little we say, but I sort of managed to make everyone relax and laugh about it.

boating around the moat of Sonargaon

I took Uber motorcycles everywhere I needed to get to in Dhaka, including the zoo where I finally saw a  Royal Bengal tiger. Tourists normally need travel permits or militarized escorts to leave the capital, and traveling for run around election time as a foreigner was a big no no, so there wasn´t much chance to try and go trek for one in the wild.

National Parliament in Dhaka

I saw the old part of town and some markets and mosques, but was most impressed by the National Parliament house – it looked like something either from former Yogoslavia´s communist past or out of the future, George Orwell 1984 style, with security around it tight enough to impress the US Embassy. I walked around worried about where I could look, walk and barely mustered up the courage to take a photo, and then realised the satellites and internet signals around the parliament weren´t normal; google maps located me in a totally different part of town and I wasn´t able to order my uber motorcycle to where I was actually standing.

the one and only Royal Bengal tiger in Dhaka

A fun fact about the Bengali language: In English, its simple and all to have just cousins as a word for male and female relatives, and in Icelandic, we don’t even differentiate between an aunty, cousin or niece, they’re just all cousins. In Bangla language, they refer to an aunty from your moms side totally differently than an aunty from your dads side, and same for a paternal or maternal uncle. Mama is the word for your moms brother, which still makes me snicker.

The Star Mosque

A very useful fact for overland travelers to Bangladesh: visa on arrival from Kolkata to Dhaka thru the Benapole border is not possible during election time, and sometimes possible at other times. I was refused entry, blatantly stamped in my passport, after being told to go there from the Bangla authorities in Kolkata. But the immigration officers at the land border told me I wouldn´t receive the visa on arrival there because of elections, but I could fly from Kolkata to Dhaka and get the VOA at the airport, even though the elections are mainly happening in and around the capital. I took the risk of traveling back to Kolkata Airport and buying a one way flight (my return flight thru Delhi and back to Iceland was from Dhaka so I figured that was a strong argument to have after already landing in Dhaka) to Bangladesh, only to buy toyed for another hour about the difficulties of getting a visa during election time. My couchsurfing host was Turkish, which the authorities didn´t love, but the final yes came from a muslim Bangladeshi man named Salman, named after Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan of the Ottoman empire in the 1500´s.

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Kolkata in a Day

Leaving Goa wasn´t easy, but it was time to move. I missed traveling, the moving around with a backpack kind of traveling. I was off to Calcutta, one of those far away places that sounds like it only exists in colonial history, but it exists today as Kolkata, a city beating with West Bengal life so strongly that only the architecture reminds you it was once the capital of British India.

curbside barber shop

I arrived at the airport late at night, to a dysfunctional system of prepaid taxis. There were as many taxis curbside as people that needed rides, but one or two police guys in an office box had to get our names, numbers and destinations printed out and take payment from a long line of tired travelers. An hour later I was finally paired up to a driver that took me to the only hotel in the city that somewhat resembled a backpackers – Kolkata Backpackers Bed and Breakfast. It was more like a homestay, or paid couchsurfing, and the rooftop breakfast was worth every penny.

puchkas waiting to be filled

If you come to Kolkata for one reason only, let it be the food. Flury´s bakery, est. 1927, is a tearoom that sells pastries on par with a Parisienne patisserie. I found a bar called Someplace Else that certainly felt like someplace in Ireland, and two incredible restaurants: Peter Cat and Mocambo (they had steak!). There are street vendors and markets in every neighbourhood, and red carrots almost half a meter long were common. For more familiar things, there´s a beef-free McDonalds, and a local version of a kind of Starbucks called Cafeccino that sells frappuccinos worth waiting in line for.

the memorable Victoria Memorial

I was only going to spend 2 nights/1 day in Kolkata, since I was enroute to Bangladesh. My second night I stayed at the Hotel Bengal Guesthouse, which says it has a bar and restaurant, but doesn´t, and the dorm rooms aren´t arranged by gender, but passport. I stayed in the ´foreigner´dorm, where Indians and Bangladesh travelers can´t stay. There was a middle-aged Chinese man with me, who spoke not a single word of English, and after listening to me trying to cough myself to sleep, came over and tried some Chinese medicine on me, with the help of his smartphone translating.

Park Street Christmas lights

As far as tourism goes, there´s not a whole lot to do or see in Kolkata city itself. If you like architecture and religious monuments, don´t miss the Birla Mandir temple and St. Paul´s cathedral. Nearby, the Victoria Memorial is unforgettable, as big and white as the Taj Mahal, surrounded by groomed, green gardens (nota bene: Indians pay 30 rupees to enter, foreigners, 500). The New Market and Park Street are worth a stroll, especially in the evening, unless you´re like me and trying to avoid Christmas – apparently there are enough Christians and westerners around to justify decorating the whole length of Park street in Christmas lights with festive music beaming from speakers at every major intersection and hawkers selling tacky hats and LED jewellery. I looked forward to arriving in Bangladesh the next morning, where the Muslim city of Dhaka would actually be skipping Christmas.

Kashish Yoga School

What happens when you spend 24 days in Goa, 21 of them in school for 14 hours a day? You become a Yoga Alliance certified yoga teacher. I also finally got the balls to roadtrip on my own motorcycle on our only 3 days off to visit the whole coast of Goa and down into Gokarna, Karnataka, when that wasn’t enough, since I’m not used to sitting still for 3.5 weeks in any place. Sleeping in the same bed for 24 nights straight hasn’t happened since college, and even then I don’t ever remember exactly when.

the days off were as refreshing as the yoga training

I enjoyed the yoga a lot, which was good because we had atleast 3 hours of it a day, but I couldn´t get into the daily meditation. Dynamic meditations, Osho Kundalini, just made me tired or energized. The guided, relaxing mediation was wonderful, but never for the right reasons. They always lost me somewhere around “you´re walking in dewy grass, barefoot, and dip your toes in the cold clear water…” or “listen to the babbling brook…” because instead, I was feeling mosquitos and listening to dogs bark and a rickety train pass. When I was relaxed, I’d never fall asleep, but get so distracted, with an intense clarity of mind for all the things I wanted to do and write.

meditating on the sunset at Gokarna beach

The daily structure was the same:

6:30 Self Practice and ‘neti’, salt-water nose rinsing

7:00 90 minute yoga class, either Ashtanga, Hatha, Aerial or Yin

8:30 breakfast

10:15 Philosophy or Anatomy

11:30 Yoga Asana clinic

13:30 Lunch

15:20 Philosophy or Anatomy

16:30 90 minute yoga

18:30 Meditation

19:30 Dinner

our wonderful class

All the meals for vegetarian, and the menu didn´t change much from day to day. Breakfast always had 1 hot item, either porridge or pancake (or crepe or roti, whatever you want to call it), oats, corn flakes, yogurt and fruits (watermelon and bananas were constant). Lunch was roti, rice, dhal and a curry, either with red, green or yellow gravy, salad (which was usually cucumber based) and more yogurt. Dinner was roti, rice dhal, curry (a different colour than lunch) and salad, but no yogurt. If you were lucky, there was a milky desert, or someones birthday meant a chocolate cake was shared sparingly around to forty sugar craving mouths.

the newbies, now fully trained yoga teachers!

I had intense chocolate cravings almost the entire time I was there, and Im not even a sweet tooth normally. I never missed meat, and didn’t get tired of rice or poppadoms (the gluten-free substitute to roti), but chocolate was an issue. And half way thru the training, a chocolate monster stole a bunch of my (and some others´) chocolate from the tiny communal fridge and they anonymously received a karma-death sentence since we never found out who it was but made sure everyone knew the chocolate was missing.

fire ceremony

The yoga teachers were wonderful, and taught us so much in less than a month. The learning was intense, and burn out is bound to happen, so they became more than just teachers, but also our friends and mentors. Some were more professional than others, and some more strict, but the only teacher I couldn´t enjoy was the one foreign teacher. The Indian teachers seemed better role models of the yogic lifestyle, while the Australian was only half present, impatient and frankly, not spot on the material she taught.

last day of training… can you see the improvement?

We completed the course with a handful of written assignments, one written exam, and a practical exam that meant teaching our first yoga class. Everyone passed, and no grades were given since giving a mark defeats the whole purpose of yoga. I wish other schools of learning applied the same rules! Although it makes you wonder if everyone that graduates should really be a yoga teacher, especially me…

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