It’s been a whole eight months since I left Bowen Island in December 2013, I can hardly believe it has been so long, but in a way the time has gone so fast. I have had some great experiences, meeting lots of people many of whom I now consider my friends. It’s been an amazing yaatra (journey) thus far, but it is not over yet.
I fly to Australia on Saturday to spend a month with my Uncle Jerry who now lives in a small town in Gippsland, Victoria called Bairnsdale – a few hours train ride from Melbourne. It will be great to spend some time with Unc, his health is not so good these days and I owe him a few visits. When he used to travel to Ireland from Melbourne to visit the family, he used to go the “long way” and stop off on Bowen Island to visit with me. I loved his visits and mighty discussions on various topics, including religion (he’s a retired Catholic Bishop). I always savoured stirring the pot a little hoping to shock him but sure, the gracious man that he is, took it all in his stride and I usually ended up giving serious consideration to his sage comments … in true Coffey style, I never let on though. He’ll be laughing when he reads this! My secret is out.
I’ll also take a week or so in Christchurch, NZ to visit an Irish friend who emigrated there with her Kiwi husband I think maybe 10+ years ago. The last time we saw one another was when Lyndon and AnneMarie went the ‘long way’ to Christchurch from Ireland and stopped off on Bowen Island for a visit. We worked together in Rothschilds (I won’t say how long ago that was!) but what I will say, it will be great to catch up with AMB after all these years.
As you know I have been in SE Asia for the past 8 months. I lived and worked in Nepal for 5 months and in Bangladesh for 2 mths, and have been travelling through India for the past month. I cannot help but say a few words about some observations I have made. Note these observations are based on my experiences, and are likely different for everyone.
- Nepal still wins hands down. Since my first visit there in 2008, it holds a very special place in my heart. It’s the people, the culture, the beautiful countryside and feeling of ‘home’ there that continues to be my No. 1 place in SE Asia. My time at SIRC made my most recent trip extra special, I was welcomed with open arms and count many of the staff I worked closely with there as true friends, even family. Thanks to fellow Bowen Islanders Peter & Claire of SpiNepal for introducing me to SIRC.
- Rural Bangladesh ranks high up there – it’s because of the village women who are generally a happy bunch, have so little but make the most of what they do have, who are curious about the lives of other women around the world and who want something better for their daughters. I mean it when I say they really inspired me. My introduction to BRAC was made through Bev, also a Bowen Islander who put me in contact with Cathy & Len (of Threads fame) who in turn put me in contact with Manzoor at BRAC. The contacts on Bowen Island never cease to amaze me.
- Indian kids also did it for me. They love to practice their English and have their photo taken with a foreigner. The giggling is infectious and made many a day for me.
It’s easy peasy to get a tourist visa in both Nepal and India, but exceedingly difficult and complicated for Bangladesh. Bangladesh will only allow a maximum of 90 days in any one 12-month period, to be applied for in 30-day segments which includes an interview with Special Branch and a number of trips to the Visa Office –not very tourist friendly!
India’s food is to die for, always has been and always will be. I love everything – the rotis, naan, parathas, puris, dosas, numerous veggie dishes, mutton biryani and one of my favourites Dal Makhani. The cooking classes with Rajashi and Suman added to the yummy experience. Bangladesh’s fish curry is high on the list, as too is Rina’s dal bhat at Lok’s place in Banepa, Nepal.
Those that know me well, know coffee features big in my life. Best coffee in Nepal is Himalayan Java, best in Bangladesh is North End and best in India was a coffee I got at the Amber Fort in Jaipur – go figure.
On public transit
Nepal’s local buses were the most fun, I guess because my journey was short and you could always count on some form of entertainment every day – roosters making a break for it inside the bus, goats being bundled into the trunk or being hoisted onto the roof … the list goes on. In Bangladesh the local buses were more crowded (if you can imagine that) and in worse shape than the buses in Nepal. I only travelled by train in India and loved it, I did travel 2nd class with AC which was a bit of luxury, but heck I am worth it.
I can honestly say the worst traffic was in Dhaka – no sense of what keeping to your lane means, being bumped constantly by vehicles ahead and behind you, vehicles going against the traffic, swerving to avoid people, other vehicles and slow moving hand-pulled carts, buses are such bullies just because they are bigger even if they are in the wrong. I’ll stop now. Kathmandu and Delhi traffic were a cinch in comparison.
And by rickshaws I mean hand-pulled, cycle, battery-powered and CNG-powered 3-wheelers that scurry around the cities. They are a great idea in my view for getting round large cities. They are cheap, generally a ‘greener’ option, and with their size can nip through heavy traffic. On the other hand, the CNG drivers in Dhaka left a lot to be desired. I was warned they were a breed onto their own but you never really believe it until it happens to you. That’s right, I had one of those nightmare rides, locked into the CNG and unable to get out, and ending up god knows where, then being pushed & shoved while the policeman looked the other way. I was thankful for an English-speaking local man who came to my rescue and got me back to safety. I can laugh about it now ….. almost.
Honk when you are getting on your way even if there is no other vehicle about. Honk coming to a crossroad or roundabout. Honk when you are turning a corner. Honk when you get close to another vehicle to let them know you are there (remember sudden swerving to change lanes / remember no adherence to lanes!). Honk just because. All three countries are the same. It must be an Asian thing.
On touts / hawkers
They exist in both Nepal and Bangladesh but not quite to the same intensity as in India. It’s a toss-up really between which Indian city – Delhi or Varanasi – has the most aggressive and harassing touts. These are strong words I know but it is warranted! My experience in Jaipur and Kolkata was similar to Nepal & Bangladesh.
On the call of nature
Nepal is excluded from this but ….. what is it about men in Bangladesh and India who feel the need to relieve themselves up against the wall of the closest building, not more than 5 inches from where I (and many others) are walking by? I do not get it. At least in India there are public urinals dotted around the cities so the men do not have to go on the side of the street. It makes me wonder how the women manage?? And why the men cannot plan a little better and not find themselves caught when out and about.
The people (especially the youth) of all three countries are fed up with their respective governments and want change.
- The Nepalese do not hold out much hope for change with their newly elected government. Every young educated professional Nepalese I met wants to emigrate and they are successful in getting their visas …. SIRC is losing a key and senior member of the management team to Canada as we speak. It’s a serious problem, brain drain.
- In Bangladesh, no speaks out loud about the nation’s current government or the official opposition as there is little difference in how they rule. Corruption is rife. The extremes of poverty and big wealth are not expected to change any time soon. The poor will continue to be considered the ultra poor of the world unfortunately.
- In India, the chief complaint is the level of corruption at all levels of government. There is high expectation for the newly elected Modi to make a difference, now that the family dynasties who have governed India for decades, have been ousted. Interestingly enough, many Indians I spoke to lament the loss of British Rule, they think India would be a far better place today had the British stayed.
There is no difference across the countries, people in all three countries put huge value on family. This can be a good thing for more progressive families who believe the next generation is the generation to make a difference and do better than their parents have. But it can be oppressive too where familial control is dreadfully restrictive and any form of independence is punishable.
On my personal safety
Nepal continues to be a really safe place for a solo female traveler – no debate whatsoever. Bangladesh on the other hand was a little different – I felt safer in the rural villages than I did in the city of Dhaka. Grant it I had a few hair-raising experiences there but I definitely felt more vulnerable there than any other place I have travelled … in the world! It helped I wore shalwar kameez all the time – as well as keeping me cool, it also ensured my body was covered up in all the right places. As for India, I personally felt my safety was preserved but stories from a few young (and beautiful) female travelers were a little harrowing ….. and it seemed to be down to their choice of dress. So for any young and beautiful female travelers out there who plan to visit India, cover up especially legs and no cleavage please!
On Indira Gandhi
I have been told numerous times since my arrival in India, that my hairstyle is the same as Indira Gandhi. It’s meant as a compliment. I think. I am unsure what to make of this but all I can say is, I am really looking forward to a stylish haircut in Bairnsdale next week!
On marital status
In Nepal, you could get away with saying you were not married and had no kids. The Nepalese just accepted that was how it was for me. In Bangladesh, particularly the rural women, were horrified, yes horrified that I was not married and had no kids. After the first few conversations, it was easier to make up a fictitious husband and kids. Sigh. In India, it all depended who I spoke to as to whether I would resurrect my fictitious family or not.
It was colder than I expected during my winter in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal. It was colder than expected for the locals too so it wasn’t just me. I was grateful for my water bottle. It was hot as heck in Dhaka, they had their hottest summer in years for the few months I was there, would you doubt it. The heat & humidity in India was unexpected as it’s supposed to be monsoon …. which as I write this at the end of July 2014, monsoon is now 6 weeks late in India. And people question if climate change exists at all??
Cricket cricket cricket. That’s what it is all about. Nepal’s cricket team did better than expected in the ICC World Twenty20 competition held in Dhaka this May and were treated like heros when they arrived home. At SIRC, we even had a central TV for all the patients & their carers to gather and watch the game. And of course both India and Bangladesh have renowned cricketers. Every where I traveled, I could see kids playing cricket with wooden planks for bats and soda bottles for wickets in any clearing they could find.
But what also stole the hearts of the nations was the World Cup. No matter how poor a city area or village, they flew the flags of their favorite countries proudly – Brazil was topper of course, with Argentina a close second, and then a few Germany and Spain flags thrown in. Although the games were broadcast at 2am Asia time, interest was really high and many people found a TV in the wee hours of the morning where they could huddle round and watch the games. Personally, I was getting my beauty sleep at that time of night, Lord knows I need it.
On ease with which you can get things done
Nepal, Bangladesh and India all have really bad reputations for the difficulty in getting things done. This was not my experience. In Nepal I had the support of SIRC to help me navigate visas and other bits and pieces I needed done. In Bangladesh, both the rental agent Azad and Parvin the housekeeper could not do enough for me (in fact sometimes I felt very uncomfortable with how much they would do for me if I allowed it). In India I found it easy to book tickets and accommodation, travel by train on one of the world’s busiest train networks, figure out where to buy an external wifi usb for my laptop etc.
What I am basically saying is, people generally want to help and they want you to enjoy your stay in their country. Aside from Bangladesh’s visa bureaucracy, pretty much everything else went like a dream. In fairness, I think I lucked out ….. BUT I am also a believer in putting things out there, and if it is meant to be, it will happen easily. On this yaatra I am taking, that’s been my experience thus far.
- Nepal: Seeing Ram reach Lumbini after a grueling 25-day wheelchair yaatra from NamoBuddha to Lumbini AND my trip to Pokhara with Esha, Kiran and kids.
- Bangladesh: Visiting the villages around Mymensingh with Rabbani bhai from BRAC Microfinance. Seeing Suriaya’s Kantha tapestries. And I cannot forget Karaoke Night which was a blast!
- India: Both the Bengali and Rajasthani cooking classes. And meditating at the Lotus Temple in Delhi. Thanks to Barb Kmiec for educating me on Baha’i J