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A foreigner in Kuakata

  • Published at 06:15 pm May 26th, 2015
A foreigner in Kuakata

Kuakata. Not a name that meant much to me except as a name for a destination, a coastal place praised by people from Dhaka as a small version of Cox’s Bazar. Beaches. The sea. Vacation. Then the idea of a vacation is appealing, and with good friends for company ...

The whiff of the sea immediately hit the senses as soon as we came out of the car, that slight smell of something different in the air, not fresh, like the sea smells in colder climates -- it was a hot day -- but still different from the inland air. Somewhat salty perhaps, or with a slight hint of rot, of rotting seaweed, drying fishing nets, the slow decay of the wood walls of the small shops.

Perhaps it smelt of visits to seashore places on the Mediterranean. Somewhere in France, or in Greece. That same blend of saltiness with the heat, that hint of decay, of languor, of sun screen oils and soft sandwiches and warm Coke. Lazy villages somewhere on the south coast of England or Spanish fishing towns that had matured into tourist traps for cheap travels from further inland or from colder countries, tourist traps that featured beach chairs and happy hours.

The government resort was practically empty. The rooms were along a long, empty corridor, echoing of earnest lack of imagination, drawn by architects with a favourite ruler. Each room was small but clean and cheap and featured a view to a corrugated iron settlement in front and a sea barely visible behind some trees.

The building was held in an impeccable Soviet style where you have the semblance of fun and frolic enjoyed by the capitalists but at the same time perform the role of the content nationalist from the 1950s, happy with what his government has to offer.

We moved on, to a guest house closer to the sea and with all the trimmings of a happy-go-lucky management. A television set blearing in a large unwelcoming common room on the ground floor, rusty locks on the doors, soap missing from the bathroom, each room featuring a veranda practically filled with the air conditioning set.

But these were shortcomings easily forgotten in the face of the welcoming smile of the owner and the quick step and service-mindedness of the young boys he sent scampering about, the generous offer of a reduced price on what was already a ludicriously cheap rate, and the ashtray immediately presented when we hauled cigarettes out of the bag.

Kuakata is at the end of the road. The road from Dhaka, from Barisal. The bus stops there. There is nothing beyond. Everybody out! And they climb down from the bus, from the cars, the passengers, the holiday-makers, the handful of students and friends free from their courses for a few days, some with happy anticipation and others tired and weary after the long ride, streching their backs. The father and mother with the children and the anxious faces: All here? All bags? Where is our guest house? A small child crying.

A handful of small eateries, and on the road down to the beach, some curio shops selling plastic toys from China and sea shells from Thailand. A small, bazar-like alley with tiled pavement set up by the government, but the staff all utterly bored.

There are no tourists, not like it used to be, not like it should be. Political unrest, some blockades, protests, some bombs. The number of tourists has been reduced down to a quarter. This only adds to the sense of languor -- at midday the shop staff is half asleep over the counter, the few tourists who have come browse the trinkets for sale without much interest.

First impressions set the mind, and the idea that is formed fixes your perception. Languor, heavy, salty air, and the sensation at the back of the palate of warm Coke. The oppressive sun. The smallness of the place. Its crying insignificance.

And then one is proven wrong, the prejudice shamed. For right there, in the midst of this nothingness, life, in all its glory, happiness, contentment, the simple and yet so inescapable truth -- it is not what you have, but what you make of it. The small eatery called Baishakhi.

Mr Shukur smiled a broad smile, showed us with all his pride the many dishes he could serve us. And when we were unable to decide, unaccustomed as we were to the richness of what the sea provides, he served us a bit of all. Simply that. A bit of this fish, a bit of that, some prawn dish, some small fried fish, some large piece in sauce, all with different flavours, delicately prepared.

And he elaborated: Why this fish in that sauce, and why that piece of that fish should never be fried, always boiled, but that part you may fry. The head, however, is prepared with so-and-so spice, and these large prawns should be marinated in a blend of spices with onion and garlic and so on and so on.

In between, he told us his story of how he had worked in Chittagong, in Dhaka, but had come to Kuakata to settle. But the political unrest, bombs, and his earnings were down, terribly down. Mr Shukur smiled a broad smile and brought a new dish. Try this! More rice? Some water? This dish is made from such-and-such fish.

How unfortunate the city-dweller, the urbanite who can tell the finer differences between chain burgers or chain pizzas, but knows so very little of the rich wealth of the fresh produce -- and the seafood in particular, so subtle and delicate and varied. But Mr Shukur knew, and smiled his broad smile, and brought ever new dishes.

We were not fooled, nor was he. He was in a rough patch financially. It was not a happy place to be, and he found no pleasure in it. But he enjoyed his job, however strenuous, however unrewarding, however full of bumps. And he loved to serve food, to prepare dishes, and to see people happily eating. And so we did, enjoying his efforts, his expertise. So we ate there, every meal. Always sea food. An astounding variety of dishes.

And thanks to Mr Shukur and his contagious enthusiasm, I could see Kuakata for what it was. For it was a seaside place, like the seaside place of long ago, when we visited in the summer and the sandwiches were limp and the Coke was warm. But those were great days.

Lazy days, immensly enjoyable, filled with nothing in particular, some sunbathing and castles build in sand on the beach until the heat or the sand got to you, the retreat to the bar, the relief at the Coke that wasn’t warm after all, the langurous evenings, that salty smell with its seaside hint of rotting seaweed and drying nets.

So, renewed and refreshed, we walked the beach to see the sun set. Kuakata has a nice beach with exceedingly fine white sand and a breeze that cools you just enough for you to enjoy the evening. And the sea was still, quiet, stretching all the way to the horizon and beyond. And the sun set into the sea. And all was well. 

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