From Egremont2Day, April 2014
From Bangladesh to Blighty
I still remember the first time I travelled to Cumbria with my girlfriend, Vikki. As soon as the hills began to appear along the M6 I was in love. By the time we reached Keswick I was telling her “we’ve got to live here!”
We married and moved north when we were expecting with our daughter, Jessica. There was no doubt we wanted our children to grow up here.
Read the rest of this article here.
From Welcome Bangladesh – United Airways in-flight magazine
Bangladesh: Activism Struggling to Be Born
Sanjida is a 21-yearold Muslim and Puja is a 16-year-old Hindu. These two girls have fallen in love and run off to be together. Scandalous? Maybe, Puja is young after all and the girls come from different religious backgrounds. Dangerous? Absolutely. Last 23rd July the police were called after Puja’s father reported her missing. They found the girls married according to ‘Hindu law’ and living in the capital. But this is not America or even India. This is Bangladesh where same-sex relations are illegal and punishable with ten years hard labor or life imprisonment. In Bangladesh, seventy percent of the population live in poor villages. Village elders are more feared than the police who are ineffective in an emergency if they come at all and often cause more trouble if they don’t receive a bribe when they do. Like Pakistan, Bangladesh is overwhelmingly Islamic (at ninety percent of the population), and there is little tolerance for homosexual behavior, which can be subject to brutal punishment. Syeda Mortada, writing for the Bangaldeshi English political blog, Alal O Dulal, points out that while the rights of women are championed and campaigns against violence towards wives receive much needed public attention in Bangladesh, the GLBT community remain neglected and has no laws to protect its members. There have been some calls for the repeal of Section 377 which outlaws “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” but it is unlikely this law will be overturned any time soon. for the rest of this article, see the G & L Review website.
From Magicseen – May 2012
Baffled in Bangladesh
As I leave the house, I check again that I have everything I need. Cards? Rope? Long card? BIP book? Of course. Laptop? Wouldn’t leave home without it. Science books? Well…should I suppose.
Today I have a science lesson to teach. It will be fun – I’m going to do some magic. The students have pestered me for weeks to show some. So I set off for school, crossing the Mango and coconut trees, walking along the snake infested swimming pool and saying hello carefully to the guards. I say carefully because it is never wise to cross a man wielding a bow and arrow. They know how to use them here.
You may, by now, suspect we’re not in Kensington. You’d be right. We’re about 5000 miles away. This is Bangladesh, my home for the last three years. I teach in an English Medium school in northwest Bangladesh showing tricks as often as I can to lively up the lessons and assemblies to children who have only known poverty and hardship all their lives.
Bangladesh used to be known as Bengal and, before 1947 when the British left, it was a substantial part of India. My family were part of the Raj right up until that time so I grew up with tales of the ‘Jewel in the Crown’. So when I took up magic I was delighted to see so much reference to India in the old books. There was the Hindu shuffle – accurate though not just for Hindus. It is the ‘overhand shuffle’ of Hindu India and Muslim Bangladesh today. The only difference is that we Brits do it rather sedately (force card on the bottom?). Bangladeshis attack the deck like they are trying to stab it to death! Then there is the Indian Rope trick – though I have yet to find anyone here who has even heard of it – and the Lota vase. Known simply as lotas, they really are used for carrying water and do look like the stage prop.
Living here, it is easy to see why magicians were so preoccupied with India. The ‘Bengal’ area is truly magical and you can’t help but shiver with awe when you come across a huge statue of Shiva in the middle of a field. It’s inspiring. With my wife, our children and 14 suitcases stuffed with our worldly possessions we set off in October 2010. I took a handful of cards, some rope, balloons, elastic bands, a few coins, a finger chopper and my laptop with several DVDs copied on to it but much remains unused.
It is not easy to do magic in Bangladesh for many reasons. The first was not having enough room in our luggage do bring all my usual props. Our bags were already severely over the weight allowance so no Pom Pom sticks, silks, giant cards, flashy tables, Dizzy Dominoes or a host of other bulky props. No room for books or DVDs. No space even for a real copy of Magicseen.
Then there was the problem with the climate. Bangladesh is really hot reaching 40oC or more and the humidity reaches over 90% making it feel even hotter and sweatier. I ended up using my balloons to make models just a couple of times before the rubber wasted and every balloon burst just on blowing them up. Anything metal rusted away, books were eaten from the spines inwards by insects and cards quickly became grubby. Card tricks, beyond the self-workers, are almost impossible as the cards warp and expand. You sweat so much even a Charlier cut becomes a challenge. I had to completely re-think the material I use.
I was surprised to find that very little magic seems to be performed in Bangladesh. Apart from the odd slightly worn and terribly out-of-date magician pulling skinny rabbits out of pre-WW II designed boxes for kids’ parties there isn’t really a magic scene amongst the 160 million people here. This was good for me as all the old favourites we learned at school or for very little kids have never been seen here and even the older kids loved them. The old ‘bendy pencil’ optical illusion, levitating a pencil behind your hand, simple coin vanishes and my favourite”2 robbers and 5 pieces of gold” trick with scrunched up pieces of paper gave me a reputation as a magic man without any of my usual stuff ever getting unpacked.
I felt quite fraudulent and wondered why I ever spent hours learning a 5-way one-handed cut! Simple to do, sleight-free magic became the way for me. Straightforward forces and the odd double lift are the limit for skilful subterfuge. Rope magic is fine, as long as the insects don’t get there first but my favourite kind of magic – rubber bands – has been all but impossible. The bands just snap.
But in the end it hasn’t mattered. What has been a real delight is how much both children and adults have been amazed by any magic at all. Even simple stuff has them talking about it for days afterwards and I am greeted by children I haven’t seen for months demanding more magic tricks all the time. As a result I am constantly on the scrounge for new effects and asking members from my club in Cumbria – The North Western Society of Magicians – for good titbits they’ve picked up on the way. The magic gets lapped up here despite my average skills as a magician. I am grateful for their support over 3 years.
This comes as no surprise when you consider the history of Bangladesh. After 200 years of poor British rule it became Pakistan in 1947 but then the people found themselves in a worse position and went to war in 1971. Bangladesh gained its freedom but at a cost of up to 3 million lives. On top of that are the continued difficulties with floods and droughts coming regularly to a country largely dependent on farming for food and lack of education means many mothers do not know how to feed their families properly. Over half of the women and children my wife Vikki works with in the local hospital, are badly malnourished.
Despite this, the country is beautiful and things are slowly showing signs of improving for this deserving and most hard-working of people. So we’re still out here, helping out as best we can and trying to put a little magic back into the lives of the children but really it is the magic they give back that is the reason we stay on. Nothing is better than watching a girl, who does her homework by candlelight in a mud hut, grin from ear to ear when you reveal her chosen card or the 6-year-old boy who has no shoes cry with laughing when you restore the rope he just cut. That’s the magic of Bangladesh – and it’s very real indeed.
From Windsong (Windamere Hotel’s newsletter) – Autumn 2012
Return to Darjeeling – The mystery and magic of Time
A suitably dramatic title! One which I hope you appreciate could have come straight out of a 1940s science fiction comic – and with good reason, as I hope you will see.
My family and I had been very excited about going back to Darjeeling. Four weeks earlier it had not even been an idea to entertain, but a surprise gift from our agency that pays for us to be in Bangladesh meant that a holiday was suddenly possible. With no tenant in our house in the UK for most of the last six months meant no chance of saving any money at all and flying anywhere was out of the question. But Darjeeling is incredibly close to us – just up the road and left a bit; then over the border and carry on north until you run out of mountain.
Not that any of us were upset about not going further afield. Last year we went to Darjeeling after an epic tour of Kolkata – the city where my mother was born and raised in the last dying years of the British Raj. We went on the recommendation of one of the British gynecologists working at our NGO. Though we were physically wrecked through days of walking all over Kolkata, Darjeeling just blew us away. We were delighted to go there again this year – this time with fresh legs!
So, off we went, last July! My daughter and I were right in the middle of writing our novels for JulNoWriMo and had been frantically trying to cram in extra words to allow us the five days off and still get the novels written. It was a close thing but we both achieved our 50,000 words target within the month. It meant that we were free to relax and enjoy Darjeeling properly this time. I have to say, if you are a Costa-del-Sol kind of a holiday-goer and all you want to do is sit in the sun and give yourself cancer, and the nearest thing to danger you want to experience is to smash your brains out on alcohol, then don’t come to Darjeeling – it’s not for you. Sorry! Just a fact.
On the other hand, if you crave excitement, mystery, other cultures, beautiful scenery and a little magic in your life, Darjeeling is definitely the place to be. The most expensive part is getting here. We’re next door, so it was cheap – just as well as we’re penniless charity workers – but flying to India is not cheap and not quick if you live in Europe or America. But once you’re here, it can be virtually as cheap as you like – it all depends on where you like to stay. We came for something a little bit more expensive (but not much) – The Windamere Hotel (room & full board). We stayed here last year and loved it so much that we pretty much didn’t go anywhere else. We were so tired after Kolkata that we just wanted to chill out. The Windamere staff enabled us to do just that. It’s like getting some kind of all-over massage of body, mind and soul.
There were plenty of other guests there but everyone made us feel so special and so welcome. Nothing was too much trouble for them.
This year we came in low season. It meant that the sky was foggy quite a lot of the time and it rained a bit, but it also meant we had the hotel very much to ourselves for most of the four nights we stayed. Well! That was a good move, I can tell you! The staff was even more attentive to our needs and desires.
The level of professionalism is higher than I’ve seen in any Western hotel. It all made the holiday perfect. You come away feeling that you’re a very special and treasured guest of the family – thus it was like leaving “friends” and not “staff”! On our last night, we were given a reserved room, just for us and treated to a very special meal – compliments of the hotel.
A lot of this comes down to Elizabeth Clarke, the Executive Director of the hotel, who has been running it on behalf of a Tibetan-Sikkimese family – they have owned it since 1939. A former thespian, she is a wonderful character who comes round to talk with all the guests, pretty much every mealtime – Breakfast, Lunch, Afternoon Tea and Dinner. She eats the same meals we do and clearly enjoys working and living at the hotel.
This is a hotel where time forgot to move on (you’re getting close, now, to understanding why I chose the title for this post!). The Windamere prides itself on a British Raj-style of operation. This level of authenticity this comes from the family and staff who are all local – I have to say, this is no “silly white-person’s” idea – it is the real thing! The Brits got a lot wrong when they ruled India – however, what they got right was that living in India was a magical life. If you enjoy Downton Abbey and find yourself longing to live in that kind of era, then come to the Windamere!
It’s not just the Windamere that does this though. The whole area has not changed fundamentally in one hundred years. Some of the shops sell electrical goods and other modern appliances, of course, and there are cars and things (and even the internet, though I never once considered logging on); however, the feel and style of the place is still very definitely” old world “
The shops sell magical trinkets that ooze mystery – they come at a good price too. The stalls outside sell all sorts of clothes and fabrics, rugs and shoes for every budget. It has all the feel of the Asian bazaar, without the sense of chaos that often comes with that. Darjeeling is peace and tranquility itself.
Even the teenagers here, laughing, joking and slinking around suspiciously in corners, as all teenagers do, are model citizens in comparison to other countries. Mind you, I did find it funny when we found the only shopping complex had almost no shops in it all, but those that were there were amazing! We came across a bunch of boys from the local Buddhist school. They were all dressed similar to how you think the Dalai Lama dresses, but when they saw me and my son (my wife and daughter had gone off to do their ‘oo’ing and ‘ah’ing in one of the shops), they quietly laughed amongst themselves as if to say “hey, look at those odd-looking foreigners”. These were boys who were completely at ease with shaved heads and wearing Buddhist shawls. We were the ones who were odd!
Of course, this peace and mystery and ‘old world’ experience may not interest some of you, but there are other places to stay and other things to do here. There are museums and a zoo – the latter was good, actually, as most of the animals have no cages (even the bear!) and all have large areas to live in, which were clean and appropriately tended. There is a steam train running up and down the mountain which we’ve not used yet, but looks wonderful. And for those of you much fitter and more ready to risk life and limb than I, there are the Himalayan Mountains themselves. You can go pretty much as high as you like and next to the zoo is a museum dedicated to the mountains and those who have climbed them. You can even go on advanced courses in mountain climbing here if you choose. If outdoor adventure is your thing, then you can do worse than go to find Everest.
But for me, the magic came in being with my family. Both our kids are now reaching the age where the screaming and shouting at them to ‘damned well tidy your room’ is rapidly disappearing and they are turning into friends who we just enjoy spending time with. Followers of my blog – kenthinksaloud – know that my daughter and I have especially enjoyed writing our novels together this summer vacation. My son though, is no less special in my eyes.
Sam (who like his dad has ADHD) has no fear of strangers and considers everyone he meets to be a potential friend. I read Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Kim’ last year and he could have been describing my son when he wrote of the title character, a “friend of all the world”. The more interesting they are, the more likely he is to become instant friends. He befriended the Donkey-Wallah in the main square, when he decided he wanted a second ride on one. This man had a pet bird that lived on his hat. By the time they had gone off somewhere and returned to the main square about 15 minutes later, they were firm friends and the bird was now on my son’s head instead!
This ability to endear himself to another, even when the two of them do not have a mutually compatible language is quite miraculous in itself. He certainly doesn’t get this gift from his parents. I have no idea where it comes from.
My lad, very wisely as it turned out, decided to spend some of his left-over birthday money on a digital camera he found in one of the shops just off the main square. I was dubious whether the quality would be any good but, as it happened, I was wrong. Sam took some of the best shots of the holiday. He seems to have a natural eye for seeing things and has always been good at taking pictures. Although he is still working out all the functions available on the camera, he has already managed types of shots on his that I’ve never managed to do on our, more expensive camera.