Last week was the end of Ramadan Eid festival, and most of the country was in shutdown. For some reason, whilst the rest of the Muslim world celebrated Eid on 23rd October, Bangladesh waited until the 25th, mainly I think to give the Bengalis more holiday. There have been no newspapers in six days!
However, this five-day break did offer the opportunity to get out into the rural areas of Sylhet. We were able to catch a train up to Srimangal, which is the centre of tea growing in Bangladesh. The train itself was eventful, not only when nightfell and the carriage became filled with insects and beetles of innumerable quantity and variation – it was almost biblical and trying to read whilst fending off grasshoppers sucked in at 60 mph was a challenge. However, the highlight of this journey was its very beginning, where having sat down, stood up, knocked over a travel table and generally caused localised havoc with our insensitivity, a man came up to use with a card and introduced himself as an outside broadcaster with ‘FM Today’, Bangladesh’s second radio station. Apparently, our very existence was sufficient to warrant a newsflash for the station, and having asked us a few taxing preparatory questions (‘Why are you here?’, and ‘Where are you going?’), we were put onto the news bulletin. I was asked ‘Was this my first time in Bangladesh’; I was happy to reply, ‘yes, this is my first time’. Investigative journalism at its finest.
Later on, a woman opposite us had an hour-long row with most of the train staff, about her ticket or something else. So we had the unusual experience of being part of the audience for a change, as thirty or more Bengalis pitched in to offer their contribution to what was an inexplicable but probably simple problem.
We stayed at the HEED centre in Srimangal. This is an NGO that runs health care programmes for rural Bangladesh, as well as health governance and other development work. Their main focus is TB and Leprosy. They are a large NGO here and also operated a programme in Afghanistan after the Taliban were removed, though that has since been closed. Anyway, they offered good food, a bed and our money was going towards a better cause that that of other establishments, so winners all round.
The tea plantations are absolutely stunning. The roads are simply made, like those at country parks in England, and with brick paths up to the tea estates. Tea trees squat against the ground interspersed by taller trees and stretch endlessly into the distance. And everywhere is deep green. We borrowed some bikes – a Chinese made one speed monstrosity with a saddle resembling a scaffold pole with a bit of plastic over the top, and very, very heavy – and spent two days cycling around the estates. We visited two estates with their factories, dispensaries, clinics and creches, as well as having a quick look into the Bangladesh Tea Research Institute – sadly the tea tasting was not available. The estates give the impression that workers are well looked after, with some facilities, but housing around the area is so poor that wages cannot be particularly high. Finlay Tea, a British company and the largest producer in Bangladesh were adamant that tourists were not going to see any of their vast plantations, and the guard hastily removed the ‘Eid Mubarak’ sign from the gate to reveal a stern warning to us. We turned back hastily.
Without doubt, however, the highlight was a tea shack on a small road where the owner had invented the five colour tea: this was simply incredible. A glass arrived with five layers of tea floating atop one another – yellow, pink, brown, white, and cream – and drinking it was amazing. The first sip is warm cinnamon, which gives way to a subtle ginger and lemon, with some other fragrant flavour and then sweet honey tea at the bottom of the glass. As we commented many a time, if this was a small tea shop sitting in Angel or Shoreditch or Kensington people would pay four or five pounds for this. The two brothers that invented the method and hold the secret recipe are sitting on a goldmine – even Lonely Planet does not mention this (though the author of the Bangladesh guide is particularly inept!). If only there was a way to find out how to do it…