Friday, 12 June 2015

Meeting the Locals

Arriving at the Moheshkhali ghat by speedboat.

Toys for sale, Adinath Temple fair.

A stranger in a tea shop says I have a Bengali face. “How so,” I ask. “Foreigners usually have a fat face,” he says. “So, do I look sick then?” It didn’t take long for the Moheshkhali locals to prove they’re not shy.

A trip to the island readily accessible by speedboat from Cox’s Bazar won’t leave the visitor feeling they’re not a part of it.

It’s advisable to walk in from the jetty to the start of the road before taking a rickshaw, for a better fare.  Anywhere in Gorakghata town will be about twenty taka. I’m lucky. I find an honest driver. But as he rides in others are excitedly calling out, “hoto!” meaning “How much?” in their local Bangla. They’re wondering how much overcharging has gone on, but when the driver calls back “one hundred taka!” they know he’s criticising them.

“Ah, Bengalis!” says the honest driver, shrugging his shoulders. But of course, he’s Bengali too.

No visitor to Moheshkhali is likely to feel left out.

For anybody without any Bangla accommodations are made. “Good night!” one man calls out, remembering whatever English he can. It hardly matters that it’s early afternoon.

Selling sitolpati mats.

Another man is busy buying roadside fish. He seems engrossed in the sale, but the sight of an outsider is too tempting. “How is your country?” he asks. Should I take him literally and start explaining how Australia is? Well, most of it is quite dry, desert in fact… It’s expensive compared to Bangladesh but it’s also quite materially developed… Large parts are flat but in other areas there are mountains… Or should I just say “Australia”, answering the “Which country are you from?” that he actually means?

At the Adinath Temple there’s a fair going on and one college professor has been tasked with making loudspeaker announcements. He stops me for a chat. As I walk away I hear a new announcement, “Thanks to our Australian friend who says he just ate jelabis!” It’s difficult to feel more welcomed than that!

The jetty and ghat in Moheshkhali.

In a local eatery I’m stunned. “Do you speak Bangla?” someone asked, a simple question but I’m lucky I caught it since it’s uttered in what sounds like one long syllable! I’m not used to Chittagonian Bangla. “I speak a little Bangla,” I’m thinking, “But do you?”

New shoes, anyone?

To the outsider, Bangla in Moheshkhali sounds a bit like an electric saw unsure if it wants to cut a tree. It sounds choppy like the speedboat getting there that banged, wave to wave, across the channel. It sounds like chewing on gum. It sounds a bit Burmese.

“Chittagong dialect,” reads the District Gazetteer, “is almost unintelligible even to the people of neighbouring districts like Noakhali and Comilla… The most noticeable feature that strikes the stranger is the tendency of the people to slur over consonants, to clip syllables and to substitute aspirates for sibilants.” I think that’s a more sophisticated way of saying the same as above.

By evening I find myself in Chandan’s tea shop. He’s smoking a respectable Gold Leaf, so I start to joke about how rich he must be, how he must have a car. Everybody’s laughing; while Chandan says he has two cars! “But I smoke cheaper brands too,” he says.

He says he’ll soon be married which is my cue to question him like a relative. “Is the girl from a good family? What’s her qualification? What does her father do?” He returns from the counter with an invitation card in shiny gold. “This is the very first invitation I’m giving,” he says, and he’s hoping for two hundred guests.

Passengers from Cox's Bazar town.

Meanwhile Jamal the betel seller over the road is concerned for my wellbeing. He gives his mobile number. “If you have any problem at all, you just call me!”

Evening at the temple fair.
I ask if that also applies if I’m in Cox’s Bazar and he says it does. “But what if I’m further away, like maybe in London or Tokyo? Should I call you then?” Bless him! He offers to shut up his betel shop and come to rescue me anywhere, worldwide, anytime!

In Moheshkhali, everybody’s watching the foreigner, but I’m told I’m lucky. “A few years ago two foreign women came here,” I hear, “and a crowd of at least a hundred followed them as they walked along the road.”

About the jetty are mudskippers basking, lounging and fighting for ground. Larger specimens are charging; forcing smaller ones to flee back into the tide. As I’m boarding a speedboat to follow the tide to Cox’s Bazar myself, I can only smile at the memories of friendliness and curiosity that the people of Moheshkhali have given me.


This article is published in The Daily Star, here: Moheshkhali through a Foreigner's Eyes

Selling sweets at the Adinath Temple fair.
At the ghat, as I prepared to board the speedboat back to Cox’s Bazar there was a guy in a bright yellow t-shirt. In bold letters on his t-shirt was written “Three Lines, Up the Nose!” which is clearly a reference to cocaine snorting. In Bangladesh people often wear second hand clothes from the west. His made me chuckle to myself and I thought about explaining to him that he was advocating drug use, but then I thought if I said anything out of shame he might never wear that t-shirt again… and maybe he doesn’t have hundreds to choose from. So I let him be.

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