<%-- Page Title--%> Travel <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 150 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

April 16, 2004

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Letter from

Tanvir Haider

I have come to Mbandaka (Congo) to visit one of my friends who is working here as an engineer. I have been here for last couple of days. New place, new face, new milieu -- just added to the vault of my incessant thirst for experiencing new things!

Congo means wilderness, it means animals, my friend tried many types of meals to please me at the dinner table but I was missing fish as is often a predicament for the Bangali abroad. My friend noticed my hankering and told me to get ready next morning for the fish market.

They call it FISH MARKET all right but don't let that fool you to think that fish is the sole commodity they put up for trade in that place. Well, we started very early in the morning me, my friend, and his Indian Sikh friend, who looks like a thinner edition of the famous singer Daler Mehendi.

The destination was a straight 30-km drive over a plane brick and soil road with few bumps en route though my friend who was driving the car seemed to care less about it! He drives wilder than Michael Schumacher. I suggested that he better try out the F1 formula racing as a profession where he would have US$ 20,000 per minute as MSA (Motorcar Survival Allowance).

We reached there after a 40-minute ride on the motorway to hell. It wasn't bad though I could glance over the serene greenery and gently flowing river they reminded me of my country my loving Bangladesh.

Soon enough, we were on the bank of the river that's where this bazaar sits. We, the trio came out of our Toyota and had to go down a little down slope to be in the middle of the market. There was a big gathering all locals selling and buying fish (at least until now I haven't seen anything but fish) there were countless dinghies on the shore and pandemonium much like the weekly haat in rural Bangladesh. But little did I know what was awaiting me! We were just window shopping around though there was not a chance to see any kind of window out there in that wilderness! There were many kinds of fish only God knows the names of.

Soon, my mates, I saw, were haggling with a woman, coaxing her for a more favourable bargain. The woman who stood at least six feet and had the physique of Mr World was even more stone faced! I stood at a safe distance though I knew that her arms had a reach of at least 50 feet and she could blow me away with a single tap of her finger! Man! Where was I!?? At last, after a lot of cajoling, she relented and gave away her catch of the day a pair of God-Knows-What fish for about 4 US$. Then we moved on to the next.

Well, I was just standing at the corner trying to figure out what was going on and suddenly (and of course suddenly.) I was jolted to my senses by this woman vendor who brushed by me! There she was, standing barely a feet away from me, with this sinister smile on her face and with a pair of dead monkeys in her hands!!! For a moment I was frozen my head started spinning and my limbs went numb! This woman appeared to enjoy my terror and came even closer! "Don't you like monkey brain, honey. (later I knew this from the local translator.) I didn't have any clue what to say. Monkey brain. I wouldn't eat that even for a million dollars. I was soon rescued from my misery from my companions but I could sense the woman following me for at least a minute trying to sell her dead primates.

Well, we bought some more fish from here and from there. Most of the vendors, at least 90% to my count, were women. Men in the rural areas of Congo sit in their houses while the women work outside. Not a bad concept for a lazy couch potato like me! I would propose my wife for this change of role for a month she works, the maid cooks and does the dishes and I just watch TV. Only heaven could be better than this.

I was still walking while my mates were buying even more fish felt like a Dubai Duty Free shopping festival under an open sky. At that precious moment what I saw coincided with my image of some scenes from the Discovery Channel. There were these small crocodile babies all but two were dead and fried to the skin - waiting to be swallowed by potential buyers! The two living ones were half-dead, apparently from their struggling with their captors! I saw them wagging their dreadful tails and opening their mouths a futile expression of anger and agony! I could bet that if they were made free, I would be the one they were going to unleash their indignation upon (given my layers of fat and excess flesh, they would have their most mouth watering meal of the day).

Call it fear or cowardice I soon ran for my life from the scene only to be greeted by another woman a small village beauty! I started having daydreams that lasted only for a second when I realised that she was trying to sell me small Iguanas a four legged lizard. They were very much alive unlike the crocodiles and were hissing and sighing in the air. Their eyes were dark blue and skin red-hot with colourful stripes criss-crossing from side to side. The petite woman held them on her arms with an ominous look in her eyes. Even the toughest dude in the universe wouldn't dare flirt with her with these reptiles-for-sale in her possession! Have you ever felt so helpless in your entire life? You would never even take a chance. I flew on my wings with the speed of light from that place.

My mates continued their shopping spree with multiplied gusto. They really were having fun and of course, getting good bargains too! It was only I, the new guy in Congo, who was in the midst of his most dreadful nightmare in broad daylight.

In the meantime, I saw them selling some turtles and a dead deer. A little boy was walking with a rope in his hand at the end of which was a small dog. You might be forgiven for thinking that to be his pet. I confirmed with one of the locals that it was soon going to make it to one of their dining tables! And they call it a FISH MARKET? What an irony. I was at the end of breaking down with fear, frustration and panic. But the best was yet to come.

I am not a very heroic individual and even cockroaches set an alarm in me! And I am really petrified even of thinking about the cold and shrewd looks of slithering snakes! My luck had all these downward nose dives stored for me just that very day!! How close have you been to spiteful venomous snakes in your life? Well, I was close to the TV screen where I saw the movie Anaconda! And that's the closest I WANTED to get! But my destiny conspired against me for who knows why!

While I was standing, I felt this unknown and uncanny coldness on my shoulder and my extra sensitive senses told me it was what I feared the most a live snake poured over me from my back like a garland of flower by another woman vendor a snake seller this time.

It was alive and it was coiling around my neck like a lover you meet after a hiatus of 100 years! I lost my ability to shout some kind of sound managed to escape from my trembling throat asking probably for help of any kind! Then my mates were there for the second time by God's will, to rescue me from my trepidation. We were in our car within no time.

Our vehicle drove past the road we came through. This time I was a man draped with fear and excitement, with thrill and horror much like you feel after going through a horror movie in a dark cold theatre! My wife always has a hard time sending me to buy fish back in Bangladesh as I have this abhorrence for stinky fish market. She is going to be happy when I get home because compared to what I experienced here, our Fish Market (solely Fish Market!) is as pristine as the Tajmahal and I am going to frequent them everyday.




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