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Getting Away

By Neeman Sobhan

Who leaves a vacation country like Italy for anywhere? And why? I can answer that. Wise people stay put, regardless of the weather, and enjoy the comforts of home. But I regularly leave my heated home in Rome in December to indulge in the theoretical notion of getting away from the freezing cold to 'warmer climes.' So I arrive in Dhaka to find that, of course, winter, like destiny, is not to be evaded. Our Bengali Poush hosts a cold as insidious as mosquito bites, and far worse than the huffing-and-puffing winter wolf breathing down any chimney of Europe.

I arrive to a 'season of mists' that has taken the sun hostage and left sniffles and coughs in its wake. We rush to buy a heater, and with plans afoot to get away from Dhaka for the New Year to Sylhet (note the ironic cycle of 'getting away' playing on endlessly) I dash off to buy woollies that my husband and I had disdained from bringing with us. I peek into shops in the Gulshan area but am not inspired by the combination of low quality and high prices. Someone suggests Bongo Bajar and I jump into the fray. Exactly forty minutes and forty dollars later, I stagger back to the car loaded with jackets, fleeces, vests, pullovers, mittens, monkey-caps and woollen socks fit for an Antarctic expedition. My driver is sporting a summer shirt, a sleeveless sweater, and a slight smirk. I also detect half a question lurking in his respectfully averted eyes. I stall him by coughing and honking my nose and muttering about going to the hills close to Shillong where it snows. He is impressed and relieved.

Our real destination is to the north-east of Sylhet, close to the border of Meghalaya. It is the soft opening of the gorgeous Wilderness Resort Hotel at Lalakhal, the second project of Nazim Kamran Chowdhury's beautiful Nazimgarh resorts. We are stunned by the views of the clear blue Shari river and the lushly wooded hills all around. Our room, among the thirty eight others, is in a part of the hotel called 'Nest' and the view from the huge windows makes us feel we are cradled among the branches of the forest. Never has the act of getting away been so successful!

It is cold in the mornings but unlike Dhaka, there is dazzling sunshine. It floods the rooms and terraces and as the day wears on we peel off the warm layers we had piled on. The excellent service and hospitality, the superb natural vistas, the congenial company, all make for a memorable stay in a hotel that is unique in Bangladesh, I dare say. The River Queen restaurant down by the river, the tented rooms at the riverside camping grounds, the bonfire and barbeque dinners and al fresco lunches, the side trips offered by the resort: boat rides, sightseeing trips to rainforests, waterfalls, nature parks, tea gardens, Manipuri villages and Khashia homesteads on stilts near Jafflong, summer sports, picnics, etc. all make for a complete destination holiday.

Many energetic members of our group avail of the activities, while some of us get away from the world of physical exercise to the mental gymnastics of Scrabble in a sunny corner by the Eternity pool. I take my relaxation a notch up by leaving the company of friends to further get away to the peace of my beautiful room with its view of foliage and sky, and below, ducks in the stream and village girls in the distance. Then the ultimate getting away: closing one's eyes and absorbing the silence of nature which is really a woven mesh of bird calls, far off voices and finally one's heart beat, steady and at peace.

The art of getting away. We can do that by shutting the door or closing our eyes and meditating. We can also do it by taking a short flight within our own country and retreating into the beauty of untampered nature. There are so many spots in the country we know nothing about. These days we do not have to go to Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, Malaysia, Singapore or even India. Thanks to the pioneering spirit of people like Nazim Kamran Chowdhury who are dedicated to developing resorts, hotels and tourism facilities in some of the most pristine corners of Bangladesh, families and lovers of nature can get away for a few days. Far from it all; yet not too far.

Photo: Enayet Choudhury
(For details visit- http://www.nazimgarh.com/)

Neeman Sobhan is a writer and journalist, living in Italy and teaching at the University of Rome. She also writes the fortnightly 'A Roman Column' that appears in the Star Weekend Magazine of Fridays.


A picture of the future

A great city tames its landscape, making wilderness a dutiful participant in the grand scheme of its dwellers. A basic result of that is seen in most big cities around the world -- that of life growing and thriving around waterways, combining form and function to create an aesthetically pleasing backdrop to city life.

With the completion of the Hatirjheel project, modern Dhaka has become one of those cities. Realists, not pessimists, will sensibly remind us that the start of something grand in this city of ours hardly means that it will remain so. But even those realists will find it hard not to be impressed by the project, its scale and ambition.

The newly inaugurated Hatirjheel expressway stands to greatly facilitate the ease of traffic to and from the areas it connects -- Badda, Gulshan, Modhubagh, Moghbazar, Tejgaon and Ulan. Indeed, the expressway has made the seemingly impossible possible. On a busy weekday, you can now get on the expressway at Tejgaon and reach Rampura in less than ten minutes, a journey that in pre-Hatirjheel days would have taken around an hour.

The idea of the expressway is a new one in Bangladesh. With the lake in the middle and the expressway circling it, traffic moves in a clockwise direction. The jheel side of the road -- to the right of the divider -- carries a steady, unstopping stream of traffic and there are exits feeding into the left of the divider at every junction the expressway connects. Leaving aside the odd car seen travelling in the wrong direction (clear overhead signs directing traffic is a crucial component missing from the grand project), it seems to be working pretty well as there has not yet been reports of congestion on the expressway, which is an all-too-familiar reality on many of the new overpasses and connecting roads that have been springing up around Dhaka.

Another crucial role, as we all know, of the scheme is that of a storm drainage system to prevent flooding of the capital.

Hatirjheel's function is invaluable in a city with atrocious traffic congestion and one prone to floods, but the form is equally pleasing. Since its inauguration by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 2 January, the 304 acres of land has been host to visitors from around the city and beyond. The open space, providing an untrammelled view of the winding expressway, colourfully lit bridges and shimmering lake is more than a breath of fresh air in the concrete jungle that is Dhaka.

Families, friends and couples can be seen in the hundreds sitting on one of the benches overlooking the lake, and the picture reveals just how starved of recreation the city is. Most of Hatirjheel's recreation facilities -- celebration point, water court, floating walkway, viewing deck, children's play apparatus, water taxi terminal, lakeside landing steps, and amphitheatre -- will materialise before June.

But that -- people given a bit of a push towards recreation, and giving it a life of its own -- is the spirit that defines the Hatirjheel project and life in Bangladesh. Not long ago the area was a dumping ground with sewage flowing into the canals. The most heartening aspect of the project is that such a transformation was made possible not by foreign expertise, but through the imagination of the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) who came up with the design, which was then implemented by the 16 Engineering Construction Battalion (ECB) of the Bangladesh Army.

Hatirjheel is a blueprint for the future. To manage the ever-worsening traffic problems in Dhaka, expressways will become integral solutions as the city grows. More than anything, the project proves that us Bangladeshis can come up with solutions tailored to the particular situation we find ourselves in. If maintained well, Hatirjheel may be seen as the start of a new kind of Bangladesh, one that does not shy away from thinking big.

Photo: Sazzad Ibne Sayed


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