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The Travel Episodes

Bangladesh

Life and Death in the Empire of the Tiger

When an endan­ge­red animal beco­mes a threat: Mari­anna Hill­mer jour­neys through the mangrove forests of Bangla­desh.

We have to run the last kilo­metre, carry­ing our bags. Our vehi­cle, an inven­tive Bangla­de­shi concoc­tion cobbled toge­ther from a motor­bike and a loading bed, gets stuck. The makes­hift road is in a mise­ra­ble condi­tion: the brick paving is broken and we’re constantly stumb­ling across giant holes.

It’s moments like these when I hear the gloa­ting voices of other travel­lers in my head: ‘You know, if you were using a ruck­sack you wouldn’t have to lug your little trol­ley awkwardly over every lump and bump.’ Not letting my anger at my self-induced fate show, inwardly I trans­fer it instead onto my various male compa­n­ions, who, I feel, could really do the gentlem­anly thing and carry it for me. 
 
 
Bangladesch_20141222_138
 
 
After a sweat-drenched eter­nity, Bobby finally tells us we’re here. We’re stan­ding in front of a blue wooden house with colour­ful windows, a cross on the roof, surroun­ded by palm trees, banana trees and some kind of plant that, thanks to my lack of bota­ni­cal exper­tise, I can’t iden­tify. It belongs to his aunt, who has lived here her whole life. Behind it there’s anot­her small mud hut. 

We got to know Bobby a few days ago in Khulna, the third-largest city in Bangla­desh, as a troop of happy child­ren accom­pa­nied us through the stre­ets.

Tourists are rare in Khulna – and extre­mely rare in Bangla­desh.

Bobby is Bangla­de­shi, and a couch­sur­fer. ‘There aren’t many things about Bangla­desh that I’m proud of,’ he tells us. ‘I know there are many problems here, and that Bangla­desh is very poor. But Bangla­de­shi hospi­ta­lity? That I’m incredi­bly proud of. We really mean it – it comes from the heart and is an important part of our culture. It doesn’t matter how well-off a family is.’ 

He has made it his mission to help tourists wanting to expe­ri­ence real life in Bangla­desh learn about Bangla­de­shi hospi­ta­lity, invi­ting us to stay with his family in the blue house for three days, in a small village on the edge of the Sundarbans. 

Bangladesh is a small, over-populated country in South Asia, and remains mostly in the shadow of its enormous and culturally related neighbour India. Bangladesh is almost completely encircled by India, bordered only to the South East by Myanmar.

In 1947, when the Indian subcontinent became independent of British colonial rule, it was annexed to Pakistan under the name ‘East Pakistan’, due to its Muslim majority. Its significant geographic and cultural differences from Pakistan led to independence in 1971, after a bloody war, and to its current name of Bangladesh.

In the South West are the Sundarbans, a vast delta, and home of the largest mangrove forests on earth. About 6,000 square kilometres of it are in Bangladesh and 4,000 in India.

 
‘It’s wonder­ful here – no cars, no noise. My family lives very simply. It’s a comple­tely diffe­rent stan­dard here in the village. When I came to visit as a child, I got home­sick imme­dia­tely and wanted to go back home to the city, where we had elec­tri­city. I cried in the evenings. These days I don’t mind. I like coming here, and I enjoy the silence,’ says Bobby.

He kisses his aunt’s feet as a gree­ting.

Shyly, we mumble various gree­tings, bowing and laying our right hands on our chests, as our mouths cramp from constantly smiling. All in the hope that some of it accords with the local customs of a Chris­tian Bangla­de­shi family, and that we are clearly expres­sing our grati­tude at being permit­ted to stay. I can’t remem­ber all the names and rela­ti­ons between the diffe­rent members of the increa­singly large family. In the end there are twenty large and small faces beaming at us. 

I’m relie­ved when we’re back on our way again, heading for the bazaar. Trying to commu­ni­cate with so many people when you don’t have a common language is very taxing. My head is threa­ten­ing to explode.

We’re enve­lo­ped in the sounds of nature. Leaves rustle in the wind, birds twit­ter, and goats and roos­ters compete to see who’s got the most power­ful set of lungs. It’s unusual – normally the stre­ets of Bangla­desh are awash with a perpe­tual chorus of car horns. Not in this village. Most of the houses are made of mud, with straw roofs. The coun­try­side is a multi­tude of diffe­rent shades of green, as women wade through the water with nets. Water­ways or large, square ponds surround the simple houses.

A vast river to our left sepa­ra­tes us from the Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, and home to the endan­ge­red Bengal tiger. 

Chapter Two

The Man-eater

In the Sundarbans, tigers are known as man-eaters. They say that human blood keeps them going longer than flesh.

On the other side of the river a tiger is prow­ling through the reeds! I’m exhil­ara­ted by the sight. I’m all too keen to see this majes­tic crea­ture in the wild.

The tiger is the natio­nal animal of Bangla­desh. It repres­ents uncon­quer­able strength and is there­fore used as a deco­ra­tive motif on lorries and trucks, whose domi­nance in the Bangla­de­shi traf­fic is as uncon­tested as that of the tiger in the jungle.
 
 

People often like to decorate their vehicles in Bangladesh. The rickshaws in particular are adorned in great detail.

People often like to deco­rate their vehi­cles in Bangla­desh. The ricks­haws in parti­cu­lar are ador­ned in great detail.

Lorries, too, are painted with various motifs. As well as the tiger, a symbol of strength, idyllic landscapes or images of an industrial nation like apartment blocks and aeroplanes are very popular.

Lorries, too, are pain­ted with various motifs. As well as the tiger, a symbol of strength, idyl­lic land­s­capes or images of an indus­trial nation like apart­ment blocks and aero­pla­nes are very popu­lar.

The Bengal tiger is native to the Indian subcon­ti­nent, and is also to be found in Nepal and Bhutan. The tigers that live in the Sundarbans, howe­ver, have a unique selling point: they bear the noto­rious soubri­quet of ‘man-eater’ (which the lorries in Bangla­desh have more than earned for them­sel­ves, too). Each year around thirty people and seventy domestic animals are killed by tigers.

It’s unclear why the tigers in the Sundarbans are so unusually aggres­sive. In the village, howe­ver, they say that tigers drink human blood, which keeps them going signi­fi­cantly longer than flesh. 

At a restau­rant in the bazaar that evening, it’s not long before we get to talking with a young Bangla­de­shi man whose older brother was killed five years ago by a tiger.

He was twenty-one years old when he went crab-fishing in the Sundarbans, never to return. At first the family were afraid that he had fallen into the hands of pira­tes, who mainly content them­sel­ves with smuggling weapons through the mangrove forest, but now and again mug fisher­men and wood­cut­ters.

He’d been married five months before he died. In the patri­ar­chal society of Bangla­desh, the woman tradi­tio­nally moves in with the man’s family after the wedding. An unmar­ried or wido­wed and child­less woman is a burden on them, as she can’t bring any child­ren into the world. Child­ren mean secu­rity for their live­li­hood and will care for them in their old age. The young widow was lucky, howe­ver, and was married again with help from the family.

What sounds to us like a kind of call­ous depor­ta­tion is actually a willing­ness to help, enab­ling the woman to live a full life after her loss. If she’d remai­ned a child­less widow her whole life, she would have been stig­ma­tised by society.

The young Bangla­de­shi from the bazaar has opened a shop there, to support hims­elf and his parents. But the busi­ness isn’t always enough. The family still has to go fishing in the Sundarbans. ‘Yes, we’re afraid. But we’ve got no other choice, if we want to survive,’ says the man as he leaves.

We remain sitting in the small restau­rant, sipping our tea. I stare absently into the fire in the hand-built mud hearth, where there’s an enor­mous steel pan of bubbling fat. This is the restaurant’s kitchen. These fire­pla­ces are almost always outside, and in the evenings they use them to deep-fry bread with diffe­rent fillings. My usually bound­less appe­tite for novelty has suddenly deser­ted me. The young man’s story, or perhaps the hygiene level of the restau­rant, is to blame.

Probably both.

My ardent desire to see a tiger in the wild has now become a little embarr­as­sing. The sight we tourists would pay good money for is one that people who live near the Sundarbans are despe­rate to avoid.

The whole situa­tion brings home to me once more how privi­le­ged I am. Thanks to the happy acci­dent of being born in a pros­pe­rous coun­try, I’m able to want to see a tiger in the wild – before the endan­ge­red crea­ture no longer exists. I’d have the secu­rity of an armed ranger, who would inter­vene in an emer­gency.

The circum­s­tan­ces here show me that tigers pose, above all, a threat to human beings. Back home, I live in a world of possi­bi­li­ties too utterly diffe­rent to be able to really under­stand what it means when a tiger kills a Bangla­de­shi family’s only cow. It is as if we suddenly lost our house and all our belon­gings, inclu­ding any insurance. Our means of exis­tence would be destroyed.

Chapter three

Retribution

The villa­gers natu­rally have a very diffe­rent atti­tude than we do to the threat posed by tigers to their lives and exis­tence. Revenge killings are not uncom­mon. They are a very real threat to the future of the Bengal tigers. Two to four tigers are killed every year in the villa­ges around the Sundarbans. But who cares about the survi­val of an endan­ge­red species when their own life is in danger?

At the bazaar we meet an elderly man who survi­ved a tiger attack twenty-two years ago.

Today, Bengal tiger skins fetch 20,000 to 25,000 Bangla­de­shi taka. That’s only 240 to 300 euros when you’re at the begin­ning of the multi-link sales chain, which can stretch from Bangla­desh across India to Nepal, and even­tually to China. The ulti­mate buyer will pay much more, of course, and the various midd­le­men make a fortune. There’s great demand for them.

In a coun­try where the average wage is barely 70 euros per month, and where many fami­lies in rural areas survive on less than 30 euros per month, 300 euros is a hell of a lot of money.

And suddenly the oppor­tu­nity arises to earn ten times the family’s total income.

A tempt­ing deal.

Wild­team, an NGO based in Bangla­desh, are trying to work against this dilemma, begin­ning a ten-year campaign in 2009 called the ‘Mother Sundarbans Project’, which takes a holistic approach to solving the conflict between humans and tigers in the Sundarbans. Their goal is to enable peace­ful co-existence, where fewer people and live­stock are killed by tigers.

The campaign is based on three pillars: educa­ting people and raising aware­ness in the villa­ges; sending out teams on patrol; and enfor­cing the laws against poaching.

Over 350 quali­fied volun­te­ers help long-term with the educa­tion and aware­ness work among the villa­gers. Many of the inha­bi­tants who go into the forest to work are not aware of the preven­ta­tive secu­rity measu­res they could take. There are monthly meetings for secu­rity trai­ning, where they are taught to reco­gnise fresh tiger tracks and warning calls from other animals, and advi­sed never to go into the forest alone, but always as part of a team. The harsher legis­la­tion against poaching is also clearly explai­ned, so that it will be widely unders­tood. Anybody brea­king the new laws risks a seven-year jail sentence and a fine of 1,000,000 taka (12,000 euros).

 
 
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There are also nume­rous teams that patrol the mangrove forest around the clock. In emer­gency situa­ti­ons, for instance if a tiger comes into the village, they chase it back into the forest.

The campaign has been well recei­ved among the locals. The name ‘Mother Sundarbans’ was chosen for a good reason: the Sundarbans are an important source of susten­ance for the surroun­ding villa­ges, where appro­xi­mately a million people live. Directly or indi­rectly, they all live off the ecosys­tem of the forest; the Sundarbans provide an income, whether through catching fish, prawns or crabs, or through gathe­ring wood or honey. If the tigers die out, the ecosys­tem of the Sundarbans would collapse – its preser­va­tion is there­fore crucial to all the villa­gers.

Chapter Four

In the Sundarbans

Sear­ching for the Bengal tiger: a boat trip into the largest mangrove forest in the world.

The alarm goes off, much too early. Exhausted, we trudge word­lessly the good kilo­metre to the bazaar to perform the daily ritual of break­fast before we set off into the Sundarbans in a small boat. At least, that’s the plan.

The bazaar is prac­tically deser­ted this morning; last night it was still the place to be. It’s as if the village were lying in bed with a hango­ver, which can’t be the reason, as alco­hol is taboo in Muslim Bangla­desh.

The word ‘bazaar’ makes you think of a confu­sing warren of narrow alley­ways. This bazaar consists of a ramrod-straight road. The shops are construc­ted from the essen­ti­als. Wooden beams as support columns, tarpau­lins as roofs. The most secure buil­dings are made of corru­ga­ted iron. Rein­forced concrete is used only for offi­cial things like the school, the mosque and the bridge. The boats by the river­bank are exclu­si­vely made of wood.

Our break­fast place commen­ces opera­ti­ons. As usual, I order parat­has (deep-fried bread) with spicy dhal (lentil soup) and a chilli omelette. The simple reason I can decide so easily is because, after a week in Bangla­desh, I’ve learnt that there’s no other option. And to follow, there’s a colo­nial hold­o­ver with a Bangla­de­shi finish: black tea. With a glass of tea comes a half-glass of sugar and a half-glass of conden­sed milk.
 
 

Fresh parathas.

Fresh parat­has.

Inside our local breakfast place

Inside our local break­fast place

with an eye for decoration

with an eye for deco­ra­tion

and an open kitchen.

and an open kitchen.

Slowly the sun reaches above the blan­ket of clouds and tinges ever­y­thing with the soft light of dawn. The first boats glide sound­lessly along the river.

Only our boat remains out of sight. No – there it is. Bobby points to a tiny dot on the hori­zon. In a few minu­tes they’ll be here. Ten, twenty, forty minu­tes – just a few minu­tes, if you will. The tiny dot on the hori­zon doesn’t get any bigger. ‘It’s got stuck,’ explains Bobby after an hour. It’s low tide and they’ve run aground; we’d better wait for high tide. With a cup of tea, natu­rally.

Where­ver we show up in Bangla­desh, we can guaran­tee that we’ll increase the teashops’ turno­ver by a factor of ten. We’re a crowd-puller. There’s a large group of people gathe­red around us in no time, eagerly watching our every move­ment. Instead of popcorn, howe­ver, they order tea and paan (chop­ped areca nuts with slaked lime, wrap­ped up in a betel leaf). Men in the first row, women stan­ding modestly behind them. After a few minu­tes there’s the stan­dard ques­tion:

‘Where are you from?’
‘Amar Desh Germany’ (empha­sis on the long, drawn-out ‘A’ – my coun­try Germany), I answer, and am chee­red for my three words of Bangla­de­shi.
‘Are you married?’
‘Do you have child­ren?’
‘How do you like Bangla­desh?’

‘It’s so beau­ti­ful!’ we answer simul­ta­neously, a smile on our faces.

We have this sort of conver­sa­tion time and time again, as new resi­dents keep arri­ving, and because the level of English here isn’t quite up to more profound conver­sa­ti­ons. All our answers to these four ques­ti­ons are imme­dia­tely discus­sed with Bobby and his friends. It’s an irri­ta­ting feeling to be the subject of conver­sa­tion when you’re damned to sitting there in silence, not under­stan­ding a word.

Finally our boat has moored too. We get going. I’ve seen mangro­ves before, and confess that I wasn’t espe­ci­ally exci­ted to be seeing this one, even if it was extre­mely big. 

 
 
Sundarbarns-unser-Boot
 
 
This was one of the reasons we’d deci­ded against a clas­sic tour of the Sundarbans, where you sail through the forest for three days, although it’s touted under the sensa­tio­na­list slogan of ‘Tiger Safari’. 

The Sundarbans are a densely forested, hard-to-access ecosys­tem consis­ting of hund­reds of water­ways, as the three mighty rivers – the Ganges, Brah­ma­pu­tra and Meghna – meet here in the delta.

 
 
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The mangrove forests consist of trees and bushes that have adap­ted to the salty condi­ti­ons of the coast­line and brackish water. It’s actually a rather inhos­pi­ta­ble place – but surpri­sin­gly beau­ti­ful.

The jungle is so thick that we can’t see much of the inte­rior from the boat, but this makes us all the more curious. We come across lots of birds, apes, river dolphins and even croco­di­les.

But will we also see a tiger?

In Bangla­desh there are no perma­nent villa­ges in the forests. When people come here to work, they always live on their boats, whether for two days or several weeks. Tigers are less likely to attack people on boats.

On our jour­ney through the forest, we meet many such workers, most of whom are fisher­men.

Previously, otter fishing was very widespread here. Catching fish with otters is a tradi­tio­nal method wher­eby two otters on leas­hes drive the fish into the fisherman’s net. The fish are collec­ted from the net by hand, and kept alive in the belly of the boat until they’re handed over to traders and trans­por­ted to the markets. 

In the Sundarbans and the two neigh­bou­ring districts of Khulna and Narail, otter fishing is still prac­tised today. There are perhaps a dozen fami­lies that have preser­ved this tradi­tion, making most of their money by char­ging horren­dous prices for ‘fishing shows’ aimed at tourists and repor­ters. It seems to me to be the most lucra­tive profes­sion in Bangla­desh; the fisher­men spoke of earning more than 300 euros a week.

Unmasked

In a lot of coverage of the Sundarbans, you see workers wearing masks with pain­ted faces on the back of their heads. They say that tigers always attack from behind, so you trick the mighty preda­tor by making it think that the mask is facing forwards. Do the fisher­men we’re passing gene­rally put on masks when they go out into rural areas? 

The ranger who’s accom­pany­ing us on a brief walk through the forest tells us that in Bangla­desh, at least, nobody has worn these masks for years. He doesn’t know why, but he cyni­cally suppo­ses that people are increa­singly thin­king of them­sel­ves as more coura­ge­ous, and believe they no longer need the masks.

I let the others go ahead a little. I want to hear the forest, and feel alone in the Sundarbans for a few seconds.

Nothing; nothing moves. I stare into the forest, concen­tra­ting, as if I had X-ray vision and might be able to see a tiger far in the distance. Then it strikes me that black-and-orange stri­pes are actually the perfect camou­flage here. The colours orange and black are domi­nant near the forest floor, thanks to the shadows and the deca­y­ing leaves.

The ranger isn’t very amused, and explains again how important it is to stay close toge­ther. We’re in the empire of the tigers.

 
 

Beware of the tigers!

Beware of the tigers!

The ranger’s always at the front. We’re supposed to follow close behind.

The ranger’s always at the front. We’re suppo­sed to follow close behind.

A freshwater pond, where tigers often come to drink. Bengal tigers drink saltwater too, which apparently accounts for their unusual aggression, but prefer fresh.

A freshwa­ter pond, where tigers often come to drink. Bengal tigers drink salt­wa­ter too, which appar­ently accounts for their unusual aggres­sion, but prefer fresh.

The pond is wonderfully adorned with an infinite number of blossoming water lilies.

The pond is wonder­fully ador­ned with an infi­nite number of blossom­ing water lilies. 

Tiger scat.

Tiger scat.

A tiger gave birth last summer in that tree trunk over there. The tiger cubs were unbelievably adorable.

A tiger gave birth last summer in that tree trunk over there. The tiger cubs were unbe­liev­a­bly adorable.

This is where a tiger recently curled up in the grass. The whole thing gradually gives the impression of an enormous reliquary shrine.

This is where a tiger recently curled up in the grass. The whole thing gradually gives the impres­sion of an enor­mous reli­quary shrine. 

Next up, fresh tiger tracks in the mud. It’s only a few hours since the tiger came through here, says the ranger. I’m sceptical. They’ve probably got replica paws somewhere, and as soon as tourists show up they quickly stamp a few prints into the sludge so that we’ve at least seen something we can associate with tigers.

Next up, fresh tiger tracks in the mud. It’s only a few hours since the tiger came through here, says the ranger. I’m scep­ti­cal. They’ve probably got replica paws some­where, and as soon as tourists show up they quickly stamp a few prints into the sludge so that we’ve at least seen some­thing we can asso­ciate with tigers.

Two days ago a tiger crossed his path, claims the ranger, as he was walking along here with some tourists. Well that’s just great, I think. It would be nice if the tiger could turn up now. It’s no use to me two days ago. I feel pure, naïvely dange­rous envy – I really, really want to see a tiger. And I’ve not had so much as a glim­pse.
The danger posed by tigers remains abstract for me.

I’m not scared, because I can’t really consi­der an animal I’ve never seen to be a genuine threat.

I recall a conver­sa­tion we had yester­day with a young Bangla­de­shi man who survi­ved a tiger attack two years ago. I asked him exactly that: whether they’d been afraid when they went fishing in the Sundarbans. ‘No, the danger from the tigers was never real,’ he replied.

He’d gone fishing in the forest for the day with some colleagues. Suddenly the forest police arri­ved – they hid on land, watching from the under­growth as the police confis­ca­ted their boat. To fish in the Sundarbans you need a permit, but a couple of days are dispro­por­tio­na­tely expen­sive compa­red to several weeks. It’s appar­ently impos­si­ble to earn back the cost by fishing for just one day. They wanted to save the money.

He was reluc­tant to talk about it. He remo­ved his T-shirt in silence and showed us the scars on his upper body left by the tiger’s claws, then the scars on his head from its enor­mous teeth. He descri­bed the attack in a few words: ‘I just saw a huge shadow, as some­thing heavy threw me to the floor. I felt an intense pain and lost conscious­ness.’

It was his two friends that drove the tiger away, saving his life.

He will never go back into the forest, and he’s forbid­den his son to do so too.

On the way back we take a leisu­rely route along the edge of the river, accom­pany­ing people after their day’s work. Fish nets are drawn in, dishes washed, and people head home or towards the bazaar to meet friends in the evening. They have to finish their work before darkness falls, because as soon as the sun sets it gets very gloomy in rural Bangla­desh. Most houses here don’t have elec­tri­city.

The shacks along the river’s edge are temporary; the river is constantly wearing away the banks, and increa­ses in width by about a metre each year. Soon all the people here will leave their dwel­lings and build new mud huts a few metres furt­her inland. For the occup­ants, this is an enti­rely normal way to live. I’m spell­bound by the beauty of the scenery, but at the same time I’m aware that it’s due to the under­de­ve­lop­ment of the coun­try­side.

Late in the evening we realise that here even the stars are mirro­red in the water.

Chapter Five

Another World

Three days with a Bangla­de­shi family.

I wake up. Ever­y­thing hurts. I feel like I’ve only slept for an hour. The snoring from my four room­ma­tes kept me awake despite my lack of sleep. When you’re sharing a very small room – we’re talking ten square metres or so – between five people, there’s a limit to what you can accom­plish with earplugs.

The bed feels as if it’s made of stone. I’ve probably got the wooden board and lack of a mattress to thank for that. I’m also despe­rate for the loo – have been the whole night, in fact, but I’m unwil­ling to risk it, as there’s no elec­tri­city and the nights here are pitch black. The toilet – by which I mean the shed with a hole in the floor where you attend to the call of nature – is outside, and not parti­cu­larly invi­ting even in daylight. In the dark you wouldn’t see so many details, of course, but I’m not sure whether that’s really more of a disad­van­tage.

As I’m on the toilet, I sense that peeing while crou­ching down is alto­ge­ther too taxing for me. My thighs hurt, and there’s nothing to hold on to. The stench, the flies and my fear of anything that might suddenly start craw­ling over me as I hang over the hole, my trou­sers around my ankles, don’t do anything to faci­li­tate the proce­dure.

The others are still asleep. I don’t know what time it is. I lie back down on my wooden bench-slash-bed, which actually belongs to a mother and child; they vaca­ted the double bed espe­ci­ally for us. We try to silence our guilty consci­en­ces. There’s not much we could have done about it anyway: turning down a gesture of hospi­ta­lity like that would have been taken as an insult.

 
 

The bed where we slept

The bed where we slept

The clock isn’t working at the moment.

The clock isn’t working at the moment.

The blue wooden house.

The blue wooden house.

There’s a bed on the veranda.

There’s a bed on the veranda.

The house is made of simple materials: wood and corrugated iron.

The house is made of simple mate­ri­als: wood and corru­ga­ted iron.

These ten square metres consti­tute the family’s whole house: mud walls cove­red in corru­ga­ted iron and straw, no windows. There’s anot­her single bed in the room. It’s probably where Bobby’s aunt usually sleeps, but it’s curr­ently home to one of his friends. All the family’s belon­gings are stored under the beds. Dishes, kitchen uten­sils, blan­kets and clothes.

They cook outside on the veranda, with a gas flame. There’s a third bed out there, where Bobby and anot­her friend are slee­ping. I wonder what happens when there’s a mons­oon – doesn’t the mud house just dissolve?

Johan­nes wakes up.

‘We live in a palace’ are the first words I say to his ‘good morning’.

At home in Berlin we share eighty square metres between two people: three main rooms, a kitchen, bathroom and guest toilet. Elec­tri­city, warm running water, heating, plum­bing – ever­y­thing that for us is comple­tely normal and here would be a real luxury.
 
 

I’ve become incredibly fond of the children of the family, even though communication is absolutely impossible.

I’ve become incredi­bly fond of the child­ren of the family, even though commu­ni­ca­tion is abso­lutely impos­si­ble.

I don’t speak any Bangladeshi, and they don’t speak any English.

I don’t speak any Bangla­de­shi, and they don’t speak any English.

He simply refused to believe that I didn’t speak any Bangladeshi, however, and rattled off a stream of questions.

He simply refu­sed to believe that I didn’t speak any Bangla­de­shi, howe­ver, and ratt­led off a stream of ques­ti­ons.

We stole our bed from this adorable baby.

We stole our bed from this adorable baby.

Despite numerous attempts, I never understood the how all the children were related to each other.

Despite nume­rous attempts, I never unders­tood the how all the child­ren were rela­ted to each other.

The blue wooden house is some­what larger, but accom­mo­da­tes at least fifteen people. There’s no concept here of perso­nal space or the comfort of your own bed. Blan­kets are laid down on the floor in the evenings, provi­ding space for as many people as need it. I wonder how anybody mana­ges to conceive child­ren, given that no-one has any privacy.

Water they get from their fish farm next door. The child­ren plunge their toot­h­brushes into the murky water without hesi­ta­tion. ‘Oh my god, no!’ I want to scream, but I suppress my intui­tive reflex. It’s normal here.

Normal – what a rela­tive term that is, though it’s suppo­sed to mean a univer­sal commo­na­lity.

Clearly every society and every coun­try has its own customs, its own norma­lity. The way Bobby’s family lives is perfectly normal here.

The only perma­nent private house in the area belongs to a family friend. He owns nume­rous fish farms, also bree­ding crabs and shrimp. The busi­ness is doing well. He’s got a two-storey house and a large vege­ta­ble and flower garden, with an orna­men­tal pond and lots of coco­nut trees.

We’re given an exten­sive tour of the house, with its kitchen, toilet and bathroom. Johan­nes accom­pa­nies the man of the house and I the lady, so that no misun­derstan­dings arise – the furnis­hed bedroom on the upper floor will also be proudly presen­ted. There’s no running water yet, but there are soli­tary light bulbs hanging from the ceiling on the ground floor.

Fish masala and as much fresh coco­nut water as we like are provi­ded as a snack.

The family invested all their money into buil­ding the house; nothing’s been kept back for tough times, Bobby tells us. You’d never know it to look at them that they starve some­ti­mes, when the farm doesn’t produce enough fish.

 
 

The head of the household with his son and a coconut specially fetched for me from the tree, though I tried vehemently to make it clear that it really wasn’t necessary.

The head of the house­hold with his son and a coco­nut speci­ally fetched for me from the tree, though I tried vehe­mently to make it clear that it really wasn’t necessary.

Fish masala. The verdict: delicious and spicy.

Fish masala. The verdict: deli­cious and spicy.

Me with the lady of the house

Me with the lady of the house

and her mother. It’s common in Bangladesh to live with your parents.

and her mother. It’s common in Bangla­desh to live with your parents.

Curious onlookers and Bobby (far right). Here people proceed quite happily on the principle that everyone photographs everyone else.

Curious onloo­kers and Bobby (far right). Here people proceed quite happily on the principle that ever­yone photo­graphs ever­yone else. 

We head off towards Khulna, back into the city. Our three days in the coun­try­side are over – somehow it all went very quickly, yet I’ve come back with more intense impres­si­ons than almost ever before.

From our comfor­ta­ble armchairs in the West, we tend to condemn the Bangla­deshis for wiping out the tigers in the Sundarbans, without enga­ging with the reality of the situa­tion for people living here. My encoun­ter with them has shown me once more that every topic has two sides, both of which need to be taken seriously. Only a holistic approach, like the one taken by Wild­team with their ‘Mother Sundarbans’ project, can lead to a satis­fac­tory solu­tion.
 
 
Bangladesch_20141222_099
 
 
I’m happy. I had an exhaus­ting but wonder­ful time with Bobby’s family, who even ended up invi­ting us back for Christ­mas. I was actually a little drawn to the idea, because here it’s about spen­ding time toge­ther, with no leng­thy discus­sions about food, gifts or deco­ra­ti­ons. Still, we wouldn’t really be able to relax and enjoy it, as we’d be getting in the family’s way over the holi­days. I’m quite sure, even though they haven’t let it show, that they’re all looking forward to having their beds back.

Just as I’m looking forward to being back in a hotel, lying on a comfy bed, sitting on a toilet and taking the most wonder­ful shower of my life.

I’ve never valued hot running water more highly.

 

* * *

Trans­la­tion by Caro­line Waight

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An Episode by

Weltenbummler Mag

Marianna Hillmer

Mari­anna Hill­mer is a Hamburg native with Greek roots. She studied Cultu­ral Studies and Law in Berlin, and worked in India, Greece and Bava­ria. ‚Travel­ling makes you happy, and so does reading about it!‘, says the foun­der of the well-known travel blog Welten­bumm­ler Mag. She lives in Berlin, and is active as an author, web desi­gner and photo­gra­pher.

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  • Tantchen on 27. April 2015

    Hallo­hallo, das war ein sehr, sehr, sehr schö­ner Bericht über Bangla Desch!!!!!!!!!!! Hat mir sehr gut gefal­len, beson­ders die Eindrü­cke über die Otter­fi­sche­rei.… Gut, daß ihr den Tiger nicht gese­hen habt, denn dann wäre er ja nicht mehr so geheim­nis­voll.…
    Liebe Grüße
    Tant­chen

    Reply
    • Marianna on 27. April 2015

      Hallo!

      Ganz herz­li­chen Dank, freut mich sehr, dass dir der Bericht gefällt. 

      LG
      Mari­anna

  • Philipp on 27. April 2015

    Ein feiner Arti­kel. Dem Tant­chen kann ich nur zustim­men: gut, dass Ihr den Tiger nicht zu Gesicht oder gar ins Gesicht bekamt. Liebste Grüße! Phil­ipp

    Reply
    • Marianna on 29. April 2015

      Hallo Phil­ipp,

      danke dir! Mhh… viel­leicht besser, mögt ihr Recht haben.
      LG

  • Traveling Shapy on 3. Mai 2015

    Das nenn ich mal Reise­be­richte 2.0 einfach über­ra­gend kann man nicht anders sagen. Hat bestimmt eini­ges an Zeit und Arbeit gekos­tet das schöne Ding fertig zu stel­len, aber hat sich auf jeden Fall rentiert. 

    Viele Grüße

    Matthias

    Reply
    • Marianna on 4. Mai 2015

      Hallo Matthias,

      tausend Dank für dein liebes Feed­back! Ja, das kostet eini­ges an Zeit und Arbeit, aber es macht Spaß, vor allem wenn so nettes wert­schät­zende Kommen­tare zurück kommen. Merci! 

      Weiter­hin viel Spaß beim Reisen wünsch ich dir.
      LG
      Mari­anna

  • István Jankovits on 22. Mai 2015

    Reading through your lines, I felt the humid hot air and the scent of masala… Beau­ti­ful writing, unique inter­views, fasci­na­ting colors.
    More than nice to have visi­ted Sundarbans through your arti­cle, felt myself in Dhaka-Sylhet-Khulna-Chittagong-Cox’s Bazaar … today … after more than 30 years
    Every best wish,
    istvan

    Reply
    • Marianna on 16. Juni 2015

      Hi István,

      thank you very much for your great feed­back!

  • Ewa on 7. Juni 2015

    Hallo liebe Mari­anna,

    wow…ich bin gerade so beein­druckt von deinem Reise­be­richt! Der Wahn­sinn! Groß­ar­tig! Bewe­gend!
    Ich habe gerade Lust auch so etwas zu machen, jetzt und sofort! Am liebs­ten würde ich einfach nur raus und all die Eindrü­cke auch erle­ben wollen. Ich liebe solche Berichte zu lesen und ich liebe es zu reisen!
    Ich würde bei Gele­gen­heit gerne mehr von dir und deinem Leben erfah­ren!

    Viele liebe Grüße :-)

    Reply
    • Marianna on 16. Juni 2015

      Hallo Ewa,

      tausend Dank für deinen herz­li­chen Kommen­tar, ich freu mich riesig drüber. Und was ich nur raten kann: LOS! :)

      LG Mari­anna

  • Ulla on 13. August 2015

    Äusserst infor­ma­tiv, unglaub­lich span­nend, diffe­ren­ziert geschil­dert, Mari­anna! Illus­triert durch wunder­bare Fotos, teil­weise wie Gemälde!!! Echt berei­chernd!!!
    Darüber, dass die Tiger-Begegnung sich nicht erfüllt hat bin ich noch im Nach­hin­ein sehr erleich­tert — du mutige Frau…!
    Und — ja — wir wohnen in Paläs­ten!!!!

    Reply
    • Marianna on 31. August 2015

      Danke dir liebe Ulla!

  • Marco on 18. Januar 2016

    Liebe Mari­anna,
    Deine Reise­be­richt ist ein Kunst­werk!
    Bisher dachte ich Bangla­desch, naja später mal. Aber jetzt rückt dieses Land und die Geheim­nisse ganz weit nach vorne auf meine Reise-Wunsch-Liste!

    Wirk­lich gut geschrie­ben und perfekt insze­niert! Ich freue mich auf mehr!
    Liebe Grüße Marco

    Reply
    • Marianna on 20. Januar 2016

      Hallo Marco!

      Ganz lieben Dank für dein tolles Feed­back. Freut mich sehr zu lesen und viel Spaß auf der deiner baldi­gen Bangla­de­schreise!

      LG
      Mari­anna

  • Max von Rötel on 24. April 2017

    Der Bericht, wie auch die Art der Darstel­lung mit den einge­füg­ten Videos, hat mir beson­ders gefal­len. Man hat nicht den Eindruck, dass ihr wie ein touris­ti­scher Obst­korb weiter­ge­reicht wurdet.

    Reply
  • Samir on 6. April 2020

    The complete arti­cle provi­des us unbia­sed view in the lives, of sundar­ban people — They are really depen­dent on the sundar­ban forest for their live­li­hood, and indeed when a tiger attacks and robs them of only one cow they have to support their entire family and live­li­hood„ there lives take big toll..

    Reply
  • Džangir on 11. September 2020

    I hope I’ll have chance to visit this great coun­try once

    Reply

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Antarctica