Anytime I'm asked to speak about Bangladesh, one of the questions is always: "Bangladesh? But Why?" Here's a light-hearted travel piece, variations of which I've often used for publicity...
When Jennifer Lightfootâ€™s granddad won her a dream holiday in the local newspaper, she was unbearable:
â€œYouâ€™ll never guess where weâ€™re going,â€ she crowed. â€œYouâ€™ll never guess because itâ€™s really erotic â€“â€ (she was ten; she probably meant exotic. But given her later career choices, maybe not).
She gave me a clue as the Mini-Traveller pulled off with the whole family squashed in, goggle-eyed. â€œIt begins with H and ends in N,â€ she yelled. â€œHa-ha! I bet youâ€™ll never go anywhere I canâ€™t guessâ€¦â€
Twenty years on, Jennifer Lightfoot can eat her sunhat.
If I invited her to swim at the longest sea beach in the world, to trek rare tigers amidst the earthâ€™s largest mangrove forests, to refresh her taste buds beside verdant, rolling tea gardens and to watch the sun rise and set at the same most southerly point, would she even know which country she was in? Even if I mentioned the names: Coxâ€™s Bazaar, Sunderbans National Park, Srimangal and Kuakata, would she ever, ever guess this tropical location?
Reaching from the River Ganges in the Bay of Bengal right up to the foothills of the Himalayas, Bangladesh is not the well-trodden destination of its Indian and Nepalese neighbours. Yet in winter it is far more than a country of violent monsoon, immense poverty and squat toilets. 140 million friendly and hospitable people in a space the size of England and Wales might not make for a restful or secluded holiday, but escape the dusty clamour of the capital city Dhaka â€“ where a bicycle rickshaw ride costs less than a bar of (imported) chocolate â€“ and the villages are a rustic dream. You wonâ€™t find the eighth wonder of the world or even a chain of luxury hotels, but the traditions, the vibrant landscape, and the welcome are priceless substitutes. The locals follow you with delight; constantly asking â€œwhat is your good name? Your good country?â€, and women receive more proposals than a planning officers in-tray (and most of them more courteous).
A culture shock. An experience. And donâ€™t go if you dislike eating rice.
Best of all? You wonâ€™t run into the grown-up Jennifer Lightfoot and her brood of Jennifer Juniors. I never did discover whether her week was in Hunstanton or Heaven, but she wouldnâ€™t have found this gem. As an old tourist board slogan in the Parjatan office says: Come to Bangladesh before the tourists do.