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      Volume 11 |Issue 25| June 22, 2012 |


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From Kolkata to Colombo

Dr Salehuddin Ahmed

A busy road in Colombo.

In January, my wife and I decided to go to Dhaka and then make a couple of trips outside Bangladesh: to Kolkata and Colombo. We had visited Kolkata during the previous year, but we were returning to Colombo after 25 years. It was interesting and a pleasure to observe the considerable changes that had taken place in Sri Lanka.

Kolkata has always been fun; the cheapest and quickest foreign tour for Bangladeshis. From Dhaka, you may take any mode of transport: bus, train or plane. We have liked Kolkata because it is nice to be in a place which has a similar culture as ours; we speak the same language and you can walk or travel around the city without any 'fear' of being harmed in random acts of violence. We watched plays, and movies, and ate at both upscale and roadside restaurants – from Badsha's in New Market to phuchkas on the streets to posh ones such as Oh! Calcutta or Bhojohori Manna. We also caught up with some of our old friends and their families.

Kolkata city has also changed in the last decade. There were many overpasses now. Traffic jams were much less and there was no such thing as 'load shedding.' Kolkata is a bustling city, similar to Dhaka and Beijing. There are people everywhere! The public transport system is quite efficient but crowded.

The new part of Kolkata was growing. There were multi-storied residential buildings, shopping centres and new cars everywhere. It is visible when travelling from the Dum Dum airport to the city through the bypass and the New Town. Then as we entered the older part, the stark differences could be noticed. The traffic jam started (not as bad as in Dhaka!), houses and buildings became narrow, and very old. We also saw many shanty towns - people all around. It was hard to believe how families lived in those small dilapidated houses.

We visited friends both in the older and the newer parts of Kolkata. And I could feel the huge difference, not only in the number of people living in one family, but also in their attitudes and lifestyles. People in the older part of town lived in joint families, sometimes with three generations in one house. In the newer part, people lived in apartments, mostly husband, wife and one or two children. Most of these families were young. Some of their parents lived either in old Kolkata or outside Kolkata. The older generation wanted to live together with their sons' families and the newer generation preferred to live with their own children, have a good income and enjoy life.

Howra Bridge, Kolkata.

There had been a proliferation of new, posh shopping centres in Kolkata, more like malls of the developed world, for example, South City, Forum, City Centre etc. On the other side were traditional markets - New Market, Goriahat, Dokkhinapon and many other places. Youngsters and affluent customers preferred the malls with their branded products, cineplexes and food courts while every class was represented at the traditional markets.

After visiting Kolkata we went back to Dhaka and then travelled to Colombo. The first surprise was getting a direct flight from Dhaka to Colombo. I remember, the long-winded, tiresome route of yesteryears when we had to reach Colombo either through Kolkata-Chennai, Mumbai, Delhi or Bangkok. The present flight on Mihin Lanka, a private Sri Lankan airline, flew non-stop from Dhaka to Colombo and took about three hours. What a relief! As soon as we landed in Colombo, we could notice the changes. The airport could be compared to any international airport and had very modern amenities. The road from the airport to the city was smooth and well marked and the roads within the city were also marked, with traffic lights and vehicles running in good discipline. It was a pleasure to drive through the famous Galle road. On one side there were shopping centres, especially many jewellery shops, and big hotels, and on the other side was the sea. In the evenings people went to the sea side, to stroll, jog or just enjoy the scenery.

We had a very interesting experience on our way to the city. Our car had met with a small accident. As a vehicle stopped suddenly in front due to some emergency, our driver had to brake very hard to avoid hitting the one in front. Unfortunately, the car behind us could not stop and hit us. Luckily no one was hurt, but both the vehicles were damaged. We had to wait for the police and insurance company agent to come. We waited for about 45 minutes and then we were taken away by another car. Now, the surprising thing was although we were in the middle of the 4-lane highway and there were people all around, not a single person came to our cars. There were not even 'spectators'. Life was moving as normal. Only our two drivers were discussing, not shouting like in Dhaka streets. Instead, they phoned the police. This was really surprising to us. From what we could understand the police would come, determine who was at fault and then they would be allowed to move. We were quite speechless!

From Colombo we took some trips within Sri Lanka. We visited some historical places, such as the Tooth temple of Lord Buddha in Kandy and famous sites in Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. The train from Colombo to Kandy was really old, maybe from the British period. It was real noisy; it seemed as if all the parts, nuts and bolts of the train would fall apart. The more speed it gained, the noisier it became. We intentionally had taken Second Class tickets to travel with the local people. Everyone was very nice to us. Some of the passengers mistook us for Sri Lankans which was hardly surprising. We tried conversing with people but it wasn't easy because of the noise and we had to shout at the top of our lungs! Suddenly the noise became less and the train slowed down. Looking outside we found out that the train was climbing towards Kandy, a hill station. The scenery outside was just gorgeous-mountains all around, everything was green, and we also passed small townships. It was simply fabulous.

Kandy, which is the old royal capital of Sri Lanka, about 115 km from Colombo is famous for Lord Buddha's Tooth Temple.

From Kandy we drove to Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. These are ancient historical places. We stayed one night each in Kandy and Polonnaruwa. Polonnaruwa was the medieval capital of Sri Lanka built in the 11th century. Sigiriya is famous for its rock city (Lion Rock). We really enjoyed the sights and sounds of both Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya. It is worth mentioning that people in all these places were really friendly and kind. We interacted with many and everyone was really courteous to us and happy to see Bangladeshis. I asked one person on the street about how much he knew of Bangladesh. He was proud to say, “Oh, we know Bangladesh well. Bengalis were our 'origins'!”

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