For a second consecutive year we participated in the Hindu celebration of Holi, a technicolor holiday that essentially involves aggressively smearing vibrant powders across random stranger’s faces, pouring buckets of dyed water over your friend’s head and dancing rambunctiously in the streets to blaring Hindi pop music.
A detailed history of Holi is actually somewhat difficult to ascertain and scholars disagree as to the exact religious significance and origins of the holiday. What is certain, is that Holi predates Christianity and has been celebrated across South Asia, particularly in Eastern India, throughout recorded history. The tradition of lighting bonfires and throwing colored powder has existed for hundreds of years and is a highlight of the Hindu calendar, marking the beginning of spring.
There are numerous religious legends as to the origins of this unique holiday but the dominant tale involves a classic plot of good overcoming evil. Holi derives its name from Holika, the sister of a demon king who essentially (and this is greatly simplifying the story FYI) was burned alive on a pyre to save her brother who had declared loyalty to Vishnu which, obviously, angered his demon father. Her sacrifice was honored by Vishnu who came and avenged her death by killing her demon father. The story of sacrifice and the ultimate triumph of good over evil are dominant religious themes of the festival.
In reality, I haven’t observed a single example of true religious overtones to the celebrations over the past two years. From my experience, it’s simply an excuse to party.
Holi is actually not widely celebrated here in Dhaka. Most streets are conspicuously absent of messy revelers and, compared to our experience in Nepal last year, the city is relatively quiet. However, there are some wild parties in the Hindu-dominated Shankaria Bazar area of Old Dhaka. That’s where we went this morning.
On a normal day, Shankaria Bazar is the quintessential vortex of humanity that characterizes Old Dhaka. It is a fascinating area with craftsmen selling Hindu idols, paper kites and intricately woven fabrics. It’s a definite must-see destination for the few tourists who brave the winding, crowded labyrinths of Old Dhaka.
Today though, the workshops were shuttered, energetic Hindi music was blasting from tarpaulin-covered speakers and thousands of dancing revelers were crammed into the alleys armed with rainbows of powder, crude water guns and buckets of dyed water. Everyone is a target and we were no exception. After half an hour of frenzied, dye filled chaos, we retreated to a CNG and set out for home. The real adventure began when we attempted to wash up.
In Nepal last year, the dyes and powder required approximately ten minutes of vigorous scrubbing until we reached the stage of squeaky cleanliness. Dani and I have spent approximately an hour and a half each in the shower and our bodies and faces are still a riot of pastel colors. It is not for lack of innovation or Google searches.
Shampoos, hand soaps, conditioners, bar soaps, dish soaps, hand sanitizers, coconut oils, among other implements have all been tried on our bodies and faces. Danielle’s hair is still green. We believe it might be permanent. I look like I have two black eyes and my beard has taken on a distinctly beetle-shell purple hue.
We have a many showers and probably several days until our appearances return to normal…but it was well worth it. We have stories to tell, Danielle apparently always wanted green hair as a child and I have never tried a purple beard. It’s been a blast of a day.
Wish us luck as we try to clean ourselves up!
My adventurous weekend in Srimongol last week led to a radical shift in my worldview. I was hanging on to the rails of a truck as we sped through tea plantations when I made my discovery. As the sun beat down on my furry arms and the wind whipped through my voluptuous, flowing beard, I saw a weird plant I didn’t recognize. I asked our local guide. His answer blew me away.
His response shook everything I thought I knew about the wonderful world of vegetation to the core. The philosophical implications of my newfound discovery were profound, challenging my conceptual food-group framework. My definition of what constituted fruits and vegetables is now in ruins because I discovered that pineapples do not grow on trees. They grow in the ground like carrots! Boom! Worldview shattered.
It is funny some of the random things that you learn while living and traveling abroad. In addition to the obvious cultural and historical knowledge I’ve gained from meeting new people, eating new food and visiting historically important sites, I’ve also learned some fairly common, everyday things that add up; slowly but surely changing the way I see the world.
For example: apparently the game of Clue is only called Clue in the United States and Canada. Everywhere else in the world it is christened Cluedo. Corn is actually pretty good as part of a dessert. Marmite and vegemite are disgusting! Bangladeshis use “bai” far more than any Newfoundlander. Tesco is amazing. Oranges are actually green when grown in tropical climates. Etcetera.
It may be slightly hyperbolic to claim that my recent discovery of pineapples growing in the ground has changed my personal philosophy of life. However, when combined with the copious amounts of little tidbits of information I’ve picked up in my journeys here in Asia, it might not be far from the truth. I’ve changed over the two years I’ve lived in Bangladesh. I can’t really pin-point how, but the small discoveries, random, insignificant pieces of trivia and daily cultural experiences have profoundly changed me as a person. My pineapple revelation was a catalyst prodding me to think about how traveling and living abroad has transformed me as an individual. I'll be doing a lot of thinking as our adventure in Bangladesh draws to a close this summer.
One thing’s for sure though; never again will visions of pineapple orchards dance through my head.
The tree in the photo above holds a special place in the jungle lore of Bangladesh. It’s known locally in Lawachara National Park as the “senseless tree.” Rumor has it, that a single sniff of the bark is enough to render a grown adult unconscious and the giant tree has been featured on Bangladeshi news-stations and attracted local conspiracy theorists. Sound intriguing? Well, the true story is somewhat less dramatic but remarkable nonetheless.
The origins of the tree are actually an authentic mystery. It is not native to Bangladesh; in fact, it’s not even native to Asia. The only place on earth where this glorious chunk of foliage is found naturally is in Africa. No one knows who planted it, why it was planted or how a seed of a gargantuan African tree found its way to the Indian sub-continent. What is known for certain is that this tree is the only example of its species in Eurasia, it’s been growing for well over a hundred years and it doesn’t render anyone unconscious at the sniff of its bark.
The legend of the faint-inducing-bark arrived with the stroke of an elderly Bangladeshi woman at the foot of this tree a few years back. At the start of the stroke, she leaned on the tree in a sudden moment of panic prior to collapsing unconscious at the roots. Numerous casual observers witnessed the woman “sniff” the tree before fainting and, upon noticing that the weathered plaque affixed on the trunk read: chlorophora excelsa, the rumour quickly spread that the bark possessed dangerous chloroform powers that could knock a person “senseless”. The legend of the “senseless tree” was born!
I sniffed and inhaled as much of the bark as I could and, to date, have not experienced any obvious side effects. I guess the chloroform didn't work on me.
Our trip to Srimongol began with a train ride. It was…an adventure.
Let me preface this by stating that I’ve taken multiple trains in Thailand and rode the third class carriage in Sri Lanka, so I’m not entirely new to the Asian train-travel experience. However, as we often say living here, this is Bangladesh! No country on the planet can outstrip Bangladesh for eccentricity, inefficiency and overcrowding. Our train experience was no lent even more credibility to this assertion.
We arrived at the airport station platform approximately ten minutes before the train was scheduled to depart. Bangladesh is not known for its punctuality and, as a result, the train was more than an hour late. In the meantime, we were swarmed by literally hundreds of curious, gawking, camera-phone wielding Bangladeshi men all wanting to watch the ever-exciting and delightfully entertaining spectacle of a large group of white people waiting for a train.
On a related side-note, if you ever wish to experience life as a celebrity, come to Bangladesh. You will have intrusive photos taken paparazzi style almost every day, especially if you happen to be a member of the female species. You will be quizzed over and over and over again with an assortment of the following questions:
1) What is your country?
2) What is your job?
3) How long have you been in Bangladesh?
4) Do you like Bangladesh?
5) Are you married?
6) Do you have children?
7) Can you get me a job?
8) Can you get me a visa?
At first these conversations are not inherently annoying but after the fiftieth cross-examination in broken English over the span of a half an hour, it does become rather tedious. We all had dozens of these conversations while waiting for our train.
As the train finally arrived at the station, all hell broke loose. I haven’t played a full contact sport like that since my American football days in high school but I was well prepared! I literally served as a fullback, elbowing, shoving, tripping and biting (well…not actually biting) my way through the aggressive, screaming, pressing crowd with all my strength. Danielle’s shoulder almost dislocated in the process and we, to my great chagrin, lost the bag containing our supper in the frantic scramble.
Once on the train, despite the fact that we had purchased seats in second class, we found our seats occupied by angry Bangladeshis unwilling to move, almost leading to a physical altercation. Ah, the joys of living in Bangladesh!
After the seating issues were sorted and our group was settled comfortably in our carriage, the remainder of the both train trips was, for the most part, enjoyable. With the exception of the frequent cockroaches scuttling around the floors, ceilings and walls and a rather large old crone who wordlessly decided to rest her ample right butt-cheek squarely on my lap for a half an hour, the train was a positive experience.
Taking the train in Bangladesh proved to be the very essence of an adventure. It pushed me and Dani to the limits of our patience and traveling endurance, but in the end, we are glad for the experience. We would do it again in a heartbeat.
More to come tomorrow!
Pardon the corny pun of a title. I couldn’t resist. There is really nothing remotely risqué about the Bangladeshi tea town of Srimongol. There are, however, numerous tints of verdant awesomeness that I was privileged to explore over the course of the past action-packed weekend with my friends and coworkers.
Essentially, we boarded a train on Thursday and bustled non-stop through the lush tea-gardens, reed-filed marshes, idyllic country villages and unbelievably green rice paddies of Syhlet for two days. Dani and I arrived home late Saturday night, exhausted but stoked that we managed to see such a beautiful portion of the country in such a small amount of time.
Rather than writing a single massive post about the highlights of the weekend and boring you all with oodles of details in one sitting, I plan on writing a short blog post each night for the rest of the week. Coming up in the near future: my discovery that pineapples do NOT grow on trees, train travel in Bangladesh, a mystical variant of tree that will knock you senseless and much more!