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Day 117: Near Sylhet, Bangladesh

Near Sylhet, Bangladesh 
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The gravel banks of the Pijain River.
Michael Palin - HimalayaNone of the boats on the river look like the sort you'd find at Henley Regatta, but ours is easily the scruffiest tub on the Pijain. The metal hull is leaking quite spectacularly. A series of small fountains erupt from the bottom of the boat as if it had been raked by tracer fire. The eight-year-old picks up a plastic bottle and bails out enthusiastically, stopping every now and then to flash me a big, reassuring smile.

By the time we reach the furthest of a succession of gravel bars I've developed considerable respect for my under-age crew.

All around us there are people sieving, sorting and sifting alluvia. Pencil-thin wooden punts are packed with boulders and gravel until they are so low in the water that it seems one extra pebble might be enough to sink them. This low-tech quarrying looks to be a family activity largely undertaken by the very poor. Out in mid-stream young boys dive for stones. From the bank a line of elderly men toss roped buckets into the water and slowly draw them in. Wives and sisters are sizing the stones and putting them in piles.

Wandering in the middle of all this are relatively affluent day-trippers, who obviously see this stretch of the Pijain as something of a beauty spot. They sit in chairs, buy soft drinks off the heads of itinerant salesmen and have their photos taken. A group of boys and girls walk arm in arm, suddenly breaking apart to splash water at each other. Bearing in mind that Bangladesh is 90 per cent Muslim, it's interesting to see girls, unveiled, hand in hand with boys in public. It's a reminder that, unlike Pakistan, Bangladesh is not an Islamic republic, it's a secular democracy.
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  • Series: Himalaya
  • Chapter: Day 117: Near Sylhet, Bangladesh
  • Country/sea: Bangladesh
  • Place: Sylhet
  • Book page no: 264

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