After six long years, I'm en route back to Bangladesh, and the island of Bhola. Back in 2001 (yep, 21st Anniversary!) it's where my writing really took off, eventually leading to setting up Bhola's Children, So, this month, I'm cheating: a while ago I wrote a comic (hopefully) piece of flash fiction for a travel guide...here it is:
When Jennifer Lightfoot’s granddad won her a dream holiday in the local newspaper, she was unbearable:
‘You’ll never guess where we’re going,” she crowed. “You’ll never guess because it’s really erotic–‘(she was ten; she probably meant exotic. Then again, given her later career choices, perhaps not).
She gave me a clue as the Mini-Traveller pulled off with the whole family squashed in, goggle-eyed. ‘It begins with H and ends in N,’ she yelled. ‘Ha-ha! I bet you’ll never go anywhere I can’t guess…’
Thirty years on, Jennifer Lightfoot can eat her sunhat.
If I invited her to swim at the longest sea beach in the world, to trek rare tigers amidst the earth’s largest mangrove forests, to refresh her taste buds beside verdant, rolling tea gardens and to watch the sun rise and set at the same most southerly point, would she even know which country she was in? Even if I mentioned the names: Cox’s Bazaar, Sunderbans National Park, Srimangal and Kuakata, would she ever, ever guess this tropical location?
Reaching from the River Ganges in the Bay of Bengal right up to the foothills of the Himalayas, Bangladesh is not the well-trodden destination of its Indian and Nepalese neighbours. Yet in winter it is far more than a country of violent monsoon, immense poverty and squat toilets. 160 million friendly and hospitable people in a space the size of England and Wales might not make for a restful or secluded holiday, but escape the dusty clamour of the capital city Dhaka – where a bicycle rickshaw ride costs less than a bar of (imported) chocolate – and the villages are a rustic dream.
You won’t find the eighth wonder of the world or even a chain of luxury hotels – or luxury anything – but the traditions, the vibrant landscape, and the welcome are priceless substitutes. The locals will follow you with delight; constantly asking ‘what is your good name? Your good country?’ and thanking you for visiting their country; women receive more proposals than a planning officer’s in-tray (and most of them more courteous) and men are invited to show their prowess in cycling a rickshaw.
If you’re the kind of traveller who dared to come here in the first place, you won’t want to leave.
A culture shock.
And don’t go if you dislike eating rice.
Best of all? You won’t run into the grown-up Jennifer Lightfoot and her brood of Jennifer Juniors. I never did discover whether her week was in Hunstanton or Heaven, but she wouldn’t have found this gem, this unexpected contender for the most beautiful place on earth. As an old tourist board slogan in the Parjatan information office says: Come to Bangladesh before the tourists do.