Mongla Bangladesh – Part 1 : HiMyNameIsAnika

With my rucksack strapped tightly on my shoulders, my instincts rotated between clenched fists, radiating smiles, and eyes squeezed shut. My hind side had grown numb and there was no doubt a stain of sorts had formed between my hips and knees as the seat’s plastic kept every ounce of sweat stuck where it originated.

We swerved between trucks, cars and buses, narrowly missing each. Rickshaws and pedestrians were less foreboding but equally as menacing. Wild dogs were even more welcomed and treated as if royalty when compared to the other obstacles we encountered.

Father and Son on a Motorcycle - Mongla Bangladesh - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
Father and Son on a Motorcycle – Mongla Bangladesh – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – www.MissMaps.com

“This, HiMyNameIsAnika. You enjoy?”
“Yes, I enjoy. Thank you. Good job.”
Apparently while he was doing a good job at navigating Bangladesh’s treacherous rural roads, I’d done a poor job at introducing myself.

“Hi. My name is Anika,” I’d originally said when meeting the young gentleman who’d been asked to bring me the two hours from where our Rocket Steamer Ship docked and where I’d be staying that night. From that moment on, I was to be addressed by my full name. “HiMyNameIsAnika.” No nickname needed.

I was clinging to the motorbike’s plastic side handles, my bracelet digging into my thigh and fingers sweaty from fear of rural Bangladesh’s dirt roads, the public’s aggressive driving habits, and the mid-day sun’s heat casting down upon us.

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We’d stopped every 30 to 45 seconds for the final half hour, shouting out the name of the town, and eventually the name of the hotel I’d be staying at. Though he’d confidently come forward as the best motorbike driver in Western Bangladesh, he grew less confident after realizing he’d never before driven to our destination and his phone’s dead battery meant relying on roadside vendors and bus-stop waiters for directions. We met several supportive locals and in due time arrived at Mongla’s most sought-after accommodation. There, we used the hotel’s phone to call his boss, alerting him that yes we’d made it safely, yes I’d been able to book a room, and yes I’d paid him our agreed upon price. I left out the part when my driver stopped for gas and made me pay, but though a little conniving, felt it to be fair enough. I also left out the part  about how my hotel was taking care of just two other groups that night : One, a family from India, and the other a Bollywood director who’d come to recruit the town’s most handsome men for his upcoming film.

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“Goodbye, HelloMyNameIsAnika,” my driver said after hanging up the phone. With a polite nod, smile and wave, I went to my room, dropped my bag on one of the double beds, and fell fast asleep on the other. Between the busy Dhaka day, the previous night’s sleeper ship, and midmorning’s motorbike ride, I was unknowingly exhausted.

I woke up with the sun’s rays shining through my open window, forming a frame around my face and heating my body to an unnecessarily high temperature. I quickly sat up, realizing I’d just spent the better part of three hours in a near-comatose state, and surveyed my surroundings. Between the sun and me was a scene set like that of a plantation of rural India. Large green trees, jade grasses and teal ivy all contrasted with a vibrant azure skies and a white stucco growing black fungus around the edges.

School Boys Outside the Madrasa - Mongla Bangladesh - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
School Boys Outside the Madrasa – Mongla Bangladesh – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – www.MissMaps.com

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After a cold shower, I pulled on a skirt and long sleeved shirt and wrapped a shawl loosely around my head. For 3 taka (4 cents), I carefully stepped aboard a wooden boat bringing passengers to and fro across the city’s main money maker. The river splitting the town’s main spaces from its factories is quite narrow and took only a few minutes to cross. As I breathed in the strong smell of fuel from the boat’s centrally-located exposed motor, I caught the eyes of several curious onlookers and realized then that not only was I one of  just three parties staying at the hotel, I was most likely the only white woman who’d traveled to this rural town in ages.

A quick walk in the streets confirmed my suspicions, and I soon made friends with nearly everyone in the area, or so it felt. I wouldn’t have minded some time alone, but had come to terms with the impossibility and less desirable attributes of that wish. Instead, I took to the dirt red streets and welcomed every greeting that came my way with a smile and ‘hello.’  Bengalis are mainly either Hindi or Muslim, and language differences are based on the addressee’s religion. While I had no trouble remembering these words, either Salaam (similar to Salaam Aleikum in other Muslim countries) or Namaskar (similar to Surya Namaskar – or ‘sun salutations’ – in yoga), I made plenty of errors choosing the right phrase to address different individuals. In time, I turned instead to a simple ‘hello’ when I wasn’t sure of which phrase to use.

Within literal seconds of saying my first ‘hello’ I’d attracted the attention of several sorts. Every man wanted me to reserve a ride with him for the following day into the Sundarbans, promising the best experience and a sure-sighting of the  Bengali Tigers. Each tried to one-up his mate “I once saw a tiger print” turned to “I saw his eyes looking at us from the bushes” to “He crossed the river in front of us” then “I’ve seen two” .. “three” … “Sooooo many tigers! Yes!”

Women were more shy, but always smiled when our eyes met. Children stared and after the most confident a group said “hello,” his friends were sure to echo.

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She Didn't Believe She Was Beautiful Enough for a Photo - Woman in Mongla Bangladesh - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
She Didn’t Believe She Was Beautiful Enough for a Photo – Woman in Mongla Bangladesh – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – www.MissMaps.com

It had been nearly a full day since I’d had anything but tea and water, and needed to refuel despite the excitement. After one of several swarms of excitement dispersed, I gave in to the hunger pangs and asked for a food recommendation. Two men in their thirties, one with a baby in his arms, stepped forward and offered to show me the best place in town. I offered to speak with them afterward about arranging a boat trip into the Sundarbans the following day if they could offer a fair price.

Soon I was seated at a restaurant near the river with a plate of chicken biryani in front of me and a glass of water poured over my hands to cleanse them. With metal poles as supports, the restaurant’s plastic tarp walls flapped whenever someone briskly walked by. One tarp was lifted to serve as the door when guests entered or exited. There were not too many guests. I sat at a square wooden table by myself and two others were seated at a table behind me.

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Boys Preparing for a Game of Cricket - Mongla Bangladesh - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
Boys Preparing for a Game of Cricket – Mongla Bangladesh – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – www.MissMaps.com

There were two options on the day’s menu: chicken biryani or fish biryani (roughly five times the price of the chicken!). There was no silverware. There were no napkins. But the food was delicious, and the service excellent. As soon as I cleared my plate, it was whisked away to the metal pot, filled once again, and returned. After three servings, I waved my hands in defeat. “No no,” I laughed, rubbing my stomach. “Dhonno-Bahd” I said, childishly remembering the phrase for ‘thank you’ because of it’s similarity to “do no bad’.

Using his pointer finger, the jack of all trades head chef, owner, server and cleaner drew the numbers ‘7-0’ on the table in front of me. 70 taka. Less than one dollar.

I gave him 100 and left, lifting up the tarp door, stepping back into the sun, and setting it carefully down on the ground behind me.

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Startled, I jumped when I saw the two men who’d brought me had been waiting as I finished my meal. They held me to my word and brought me to their office nearby. One large desk sat in the middle of the dirt floor and several folding chairs lined the tin walls. A fan whirred in the back corner and a television playing Independence Day was fixed on the opposite wall.

We decided upon a price and time to meet the next day for our journey to the Sundarbans. He had, after all, agreed to charge only slightly more than other offers but included an entrance ticket to the Karamjal Forest Station and the (already free) police escort in his quote.

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Satisfied, he made several phone calls and together the three of us sat for another hour as the film finished. The phone calls had evidently been made in honor of his new business arrangement, and soon every plastic seat was filled with a friend, cousin, or brother of the two men. Concurrently understanding and trying to ignore the stares in my direction, I enjoyed several cups of tea with the ever-growing group, and spoke with whomever wanted to give English a go. When the credits rolled through, I calmly excused myself. Just as I waved goodbye, the second film, Godzilla, began.

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Father and Son - Mongla Bangladesh - by Anika Mikkelson - Miss Maps - www.MissMaps.com
Father and Son – Mongla Bangladesh – by Anika Mikkelson – Miss Maps – www.MissMaps.com

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?!! STAY TUNED! If I made this post any longer, you’ll walk away.. ergo it’s been turned into a two-parter. Now you ask, Is it worth it to come back for more? Was Godzilla the best film of the fifties? Was Independence Day the freakiest film of the nineties? (Answers to all three : YES!)  See you soon!

WHILE YOU’RE WAITING: Take a look at the first posts from Bangladesh:
Dhaka Bangladesh : Help Past Help

Life Aboard Bangladesh’s Rocket Steamer Ship

xoxHiMyNameIsAnika

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