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     Volume 5 Issue 88 | March 31, 2006|

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Sojourn in St Martin

Mustafa Zaman

While on tour we all desire to keep the record of the most important experiences, if not of the whole journey. But how reliable are the still photographs or videos as documents of the real place and experience. The question is a legitimate one. My experience has taught me that all secondary sources like photographs or stories are nothing more than distant echoes of the real sights and sound of a place.

Before starting off for St Martin I was exposed to both still images as well as animated words by the eloquent participants of the kite festival who heartily expressed their experience of the last year, but that did not prepare me for what lay ahead. Prior to setting foot on the actual island I thought my exposure had helped me visualise the place in my mind. However, once I found myself in St Martin I discovered that the picture of my mind did not match with the real island. I came to the realisation that reality is all together different matter, it can only be interpreted through words or with the help of modern gadgets like still or video cameras. However, as I, with my wife Shirin, set foot on the sandy shore of St Martin for the first time, we felt happy to be carrying a still camera. The desire to keep record is a strong one, no matter how incapable the end results might seem in duplicating the real experience.

The huge ship that carried us from Teknaf reached the shore at mid noon. The sun blazed as if there was no tomorrow, and those who had sandals as footwear had to bear the brunt of the hot sand once they landed on the shore. As I had shoes on the parched sand had no effect on me. My sandalled companions too were untouched. They were putting up a brave face; perhaps the joy of landing on the island was enough to offset the discomfort.

As we crossed the beach we were welcomed by the shop owners who were offering freshly cut watermelons. As we sat under the thatched shade of the shops and looked for our means of transport, I discovered that the road that started from the end of the beach is swarmed with only one kind of variety -- rickshaw-van. The ride in one of those vans was not a novel prospect. As Dhakaites, many of us have already been forced to go through a similar exercise at least once in our life during hartal hours. If the vehicle was a familiar one, the ride too at first was something of a let down. St Martin looked like a familiar Bangladeshi village with Mufassil-like patches thrown here and there. The only novelty was in the form of intermittent keya bushes; they lined the concrete road that was leading us from the eastern part of the island to the western shore.

As we came to an opening the sea revealed itself through the thickets a little further away on our right. The rickshaw-van halted in front of a couple of thatched stationery shops. Right next to them stood a bland three-story building suitable for being the residential hostel for our <>jawans<> (personnel) of the law enforcement agency. It was the resort we were to spend the four days that we had planned to stay in the island of St Martin. I found out later that the modest building was first built as a hurricane shelter and then had been transformed into a resort.

Although the holiday season was near its end, rooms were unavailable at first. We were promised separate rooms for each family after two o'clock, which is the time the boarders leave. This tour was planned by Manik bhai; it was his job to book the rooms in advance. He was leading a group of three families and three male friends that my wife and I were a part of, and he booked two rooms in advance and the ladies and the men had to part to go into separate rooms to change into more comfortable garb. In the men's room with the rest of the five gentlemen I made an effort to feel at home. As I waited for my turn to shower, I realised that everybody else was in a hurry to go out on the beach. So, I had to be the last man to get the chance to wash myself.

We had started from Dhaka the night before and reached Teknaf by bus at around nine in the morning to catch the ship that ferried us to the island. As far as stamina was concerned it was really in short supply. The two small children that accompanied their parents were sagging in spirit as they needed refueling of the stomach. For me sleep was of foremost concern. After the meal all three families were given separate rooms and I with my wife had the chance to dose off for a couple of hours. Before that I had the chance to catch a glimpse of the area. The view of the ocean from the veranda that stretched along the whole length of the hotel, had not inspired me and my wife to rush and savour the beauty. To be honest except for the sea the views at all directions from the balcony at first seemed ordinary. The rest of the gang was too zealous to have wasted time sleeping, although except for one family with a child the rest had been in the island several times before.

While the rest of the group went to see kite making in progress at a resort called Sheemana Perie, which is nearby, my wife and I dozed off after lunch. When we woke up, the sun was tilted to the west and we hurriedly came out of the hotel equipped as we were with the camera. It was only when we climbed up the dune right in front of the resort and found ourselves on the beach that it dawned on us how pretty the beach of this side of the island was. As we started walking to the north we realised that the view became even prettier. On our right was the ocean and on the left thick keya bushes bordered the whole length of the shore as far as eye could see. The setting sun was a sight of otherworldly beauty. The wide horizontality of the view that glowed in the deep reddish light of the twilight, the continuous pummeling of the waves, made one feel small and lost. If this had no rejuvenating effect on the mind what else was there in the world that would do the magic.

After the sun disappeared we ambled along the beach to look for the kite makers at Sheemana Perie. A couple of kites in the sky were our guide. It was not until we reached Sheemana Perie that we realised the resort was the only place designed to match with the pristine beauty of the beach and its surroundings. It consisted of a number of cottages and a few shades made of dried leaves used as dining spaces and a wooden platform from which the sea is visible.

The following day was earmarked for the kite festival. However, as morning broke everyone realised that the wind had subsided so much that most of the kites that were designed mostly by artists to suit their own imagination using a special kind of cloth would not fly. We had to wait till the afternoon when wind started to blow wildly. Ironically the gusty wind was unsuitable for flying even the heaviest kites of the bulk that had been made over the last seven days. But that did not deter the kite makers, who took to the beach with gusto. The result was the loss of many a kite. Some were broken, some nosedived into the ocean. Though all of them were revived many were made redundant as the bamboo-stick structures gave in and could not be replaced.

The loss of kites to the gusty wind did not mar the festive mood. Children of the nearby village came in flocks. The traditional paper kites were distributed among them. If there were only a few kites flying in the sky, there were no shortage of high spirit among the kite makers and their cohort on the ground. Only the people who were to engage in kite making had come to the island seven days prior to the day of the festival; the rest came the day we arrived. All had fun in mind when they arrived, and fun they had by taking pictures, singing songs and dining under the shades.

Our soujourn would not be complete without a dip in the ocean; my wife declared this the day we arrived. She was an eager party to the flocks who needed to soak themselves thoroughly in the ocean on a daily basis. I remained resolutely off the water on two consecutive days, but could not resist the attraction of the sea the day before we were to leave the island.

Once in St Martin, who in their right mind would want to miss a visit to the Chhera-deep? For my wife and I, we contacted a man who arranged for a trawler that took us to Chhera-deep in the morning of the day of our departure. If one is a coral-buff one must not miss this opportunity to visit this treasure trove made of multi-coloured dead coral reef.

On the day of our departure, at two thirty at noon we reached the ferry ghat and found that the ship that was suppose to take us back to Teknaf was not there. We had acquired advance tickets, but the ship was nowhere near our sight. Instead, two unknown ships were moored at the end of the wooden pier. My heart sank, but the group leader came to our rescue. As the ships were to leave the dock at three, he decided to get on board one of them. We bought tickets at a concession price as our leader Manik bhai was one of the owners of a resort.

Four days on the island was a treat to the eye as well as the mind. I felt a certain pang of regret as I resisted my wife's insistence to bring back a few chunks of coral reef the villagers were selling. They looked enticing white, immaculate like carefully crafted marble sculptures. But the environmentalist in me kept me from buying them as souvenirs. We had seen exquisite scenery and experienced life amidst nature, things that will stay etched in our memory for the rest of our lives. And to top it all, the photographs we have taken would always be there not as documents but as cues to our real life experiences.

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