Wednesday, 15 April 2009
Today is Bangla New Year and the streets of Cox’s Bazar have an extra festive feel to them. But we have something even more special in store: a boat trip out to the fascinating island of Mahaskhali. Leaving Cox’s Bazar, the small landing stage in the mud of the river is made from tiny rowing boats all tied together. Some of these wooden boats had several planks of wood missing and were sinking slightly into the silt of the riverbed as we stepped on them. We made it onto the boat and set sail for Mahaskhali.
On arrival we were literally swamped by rickshaw wallahs: the landing jetty is in the middle of a mangrove swamp. We decided to walk into town but we were hassled and hassled. Our friend Michael last visited his auntie and uncle who live on the Island six years ago, so we decided to pop in on them for the Bangladesh New Year. They were very welcoming and before we knew it we had a table full of Bangladeshi snacks in front of us. Most of the snacks were dried cereals, but there were also a few unusual tasting biscuits. Once introduced properly to this side of his family, we arranged to meet back for lunch, and headed out to explore the island. I must add that their house was amazing, although basic. The light brown walls were made of mud and there were a few other family members there, with their bedrooms divided up into what looked like another little house inside. The house came complete with a dog barking half-heartedly at us as we approached the yard.
As we explored the island, we first wandered to a Hindu temple, which was dedicated to the Hindu god Krishna. As we got closer, the fast banging of drums and gongs became much louder. Little did we know that we would be beating the latter in just a few moments time. A young boy beating the gong in a 1, 1-2, 1-2 rhythm passed Simon the gong first and it turned out that Simon was leading the whole ceremonial music with the same beat that the boy was making. He did very well and this was evident in the surrounding enthusiasm.
Soon after, the gong had been passed to Jon who also beat the same rhythm; he also did very well in having a jam with an old man playing a large drum that hung over his shoulder. The old man was busting out a very complicated rhythm around Jon’s basic one, and together they made awesome music for the ceremony. There were women dancing in the centre to the point of exhaustion: even though their dance was in time with the energetic music, they seemed to be in a trance, almost like zombies. Some women, clearly already past exhaustion, writhed on the floor. There was a large pole being worshipped with gifts of copious watermelons and in a small pit, fire burned fervently. The smell of incense pervaded the air.
We then left the Hindu ceremony and walked on to a quieter side of the island, where Adinath, a temple to Shiva, lies about a third of the way up a small hill. We had to wait for about ten minutes before we could really enter the temple due to people paying their respects to Shiva with prayers. Following the prayers we entered the temple, and again the wonderful aroma of incense surrounded us as we peered into a small shrine, which was decorated beautifully.
After taking a good look around we hiked the remaining distance to the top of the hill and it was pleasant to be in the shade of trees during the climb. The view from the top of the hill was fantastic and I was convinced that we saw the whole island from there. It was also a very magical experience to see a golden Buddhist monument on the peak, which had sculpted lions standing proudly on each corner. All of this, with the surrounding greenery and small descending paths to the real world below was real tranquillity.
Walking for miles deserves a really good treat, such as a huge lunch, the Bangladeshi way. So we made our way back to Michael’s uncle’s house, and tucked into some rice, curried lentils (dahl), and vegetable curry. The food was really amazing. Jon thought so, and for Simon, it was an experience so to put it. Just as we thought we’d finished our feast, Michael’s uncle brought out a crab dish. The water in which the crab was caught is brown and full of parasites due to the effluent from as far afield as India. It looked nice anyway…
Stuffed silly, we waddled out of the house and thanked the family for their hospitality before going to the Falgoon fair. This was packed full of people celebrating the New Year as well as the drummer, gong player and dancers that we encountered earlier. To sum up our trip to Maheskhali Island, it was a great experience and we are very lucky to have become involved with the locals, thanks to Michael. It was the best time to visit the island as there was so much festivity. But should YOU wish to follow in our footsteps and become intrepid explorers immersing in local cultures, DO remember three basic rules of travel advice: Never eat any cold produce; never take all your valuables to a crowded place; never board an over-laden speedboat without life-vests in a choppy sea...