Roaring along the seaside highway on the back of Pegasus’ motorcycle, I held on to him as his long hair blew back in my face, and I …….feel like I’m writing a Harlequin Romance novel. Maybe I should rewind a bit. Ever since we arrived in Chittagong, Kristel and I had been repeatedly asked whether we’d visited Cox’s Bazar, a seaside resort town on the Bay of Bengal, four hours to the south of us. Said to be located on the world’s longest beach, Cox’s Bazar is the vacation destination for many Bangladeshis looking to escape the crowded cities in favour of a crowded beach. Until last week, we didn’t have the time or opportunity to pay it a visit, but with the Independence Day holiday on the calendar and a chance to travel there on official YPSA business, we packed our swimsuits and headed for the sunshine.
After attending the launch ceremony for a new water and sanitation project that YPSA will be implementing in the area, we were free to start our beach holiday. Wandering back toward the bay from YPSA’s guest house, we found Cox’s Bazar to be pretty much identical to any resort town – same hotels, same stores selling beach gear and trinkets, same cows walking down the street. Well, there might have been one or two differences. The beach itself was vast and surprisingly uncrowded, considering that the holiday weekend was about to begin. Beach chairs with their own umbrellas stretched for a mile in a perfect line at the tideline and were being hawked for 20 Taka an hour. Some swimmers were enjoying a late-afternoon dip, but in observance of the strict Muslim codes of the country, most did so more or less fully clothed, which made for an interesting scene. It was if we had gone back in time in Canada, when the revelation of flesh at the beach was a cause for scandal and even an uncovered knee was met with disapproval. Some of the men we watched were a bit more liberal in this respect, choosing to doff their shirts and go in with only their swim trunks, but the women went into the water covered from head to toe. We even met some women in full burkas strolling along the beach, which must have made for an incredibly hot experience. Though we were the only bideshis in sight, we weren’t as much of a target for vendors as you might think – a handful of children offered us seashell necklaces and we were given a few opportunities to go for a horseback ride or dune buggy cruise, but for the most part, people let us walk in peace.
This may sound a little strange, given where we were, but neither Kristel nor I is much of a beach person, and the thought of spending an entire afternoon suntanning our ankles never really held much appeal, so we directed our attention to our guidebook in an effort to find another diversion. Lavishing praise on the Mermaid Café, the guide said it had received more positive comments on this one spot than on all of the other restaurants in the country put together, so how could we possibly not go for a (sadly) non-alcoholic drink there? The only remaining question was its location, somewhat vaguely described in our book as being “on the beach”. As we scanned the treeline for signs of enraptured tourists blissfully enjoying banana shakes, we were approached by two young men who said they were from the Mermaid and handed us a map. Surely, this was a sign that we were meant to drink there!
Following the map’s directions, we soon found the café, and it was fine, though not exactly the oasis of pleasure that we were expecting. Its outdoor tables were great for enjoying the setting sun, but the speakers blaring Shania Twain detracted from the ambiance, though my Canadian pride did get a boost from hearing her sing about the best part of being a woman. Kristel was less impressed with Shania’s warbled declarations of womanhood, so we were soon headed for the exit in search of a second Mermaid Café that was listed on the map as being farther down the beach. But with darkness now fully descended, we had to abandon our quest and settled for a less lauded but still great eatery down the road.
The next day, we decided to make another attempt to find the elusive second café. Never underestimate the ability of people to become fixated on something out of reach. Again consulting our guidebook, we determined that the Mermaid Café had recently completed construction of an eco-resort and artists’ village that would be every bit the equal of its superior cafes, if our book was to be believed, which started to become a question worth asking. Deciding that this must be where the second café could be found, hopefully along with some actual mermaids to justify our effort, we began to ask directions to the eco-resort and received repeated confirmations of the location of the café we had already visited. Finally, one fellow said he had been to the place the day before and told us how to find it. “Can’t miss it,” he said, “There’s a big sign across the road from Inani Beach.” In the annals of the English language, there are probably no three words that are more untrue than “can’t miss it”, except maybe “this won’t hurt” or “I’m completely sober”. Hailing a CNG for us, he gave instructions to the driver and we were on our way. Looking to hedge our bets a little, we asked the driver to pull over and called the mobile number on our map (something that likely should have occurred to us twenty-four hours ago). Speaking to a Mermaid Café representative, possibly himself a merman, we asked how to get to the eco-resort and whether it was worth visiting if we weren’t looking for a room. “Oh, yes,” said the merman, “the artists’ village is quite lovely, so you will really enjoy yourselves.” Handing the phone to the driver, we watched as he received his directions and soon were back on the road, more confident than ever that our eco-resort awaited us.
The drive along the coast was a brilliant trip. After leaving the outskirts of Cox’s Bazar, we were treated to kilometer after kilometer of unspoiled beach, the only signs of humanity being the odd fishing net strung up along the way. We could have dropped at any point and had the entire shoreline to ourselves. Just before a large bridge that straddled the ocean as it narrowed to an inland river, our driver stopped and announced that we had arrived. We looked around us and were somewhat confused. A collection of huts huddled near the roadside and there was nary a mermaid nor Shania to be found. We insisted there must be some mistake, to which the driver shrugged, as if to say, “And you’re the ones who made it”. Dialling our friendly merman, I told him of our predicament, and he asked, “You actually went there?”, as if this was the first time we’d spoken. When I reminded him of his recommendation and the sublime artists’ village that he had promised, he said, “Yeah, but all of the artists left months ago.” I rested my head against the side of the CNG and asked how we would know whether we were in the right spot. “Let me call someone to show you around the place”, he replied and hung up, without answering the fundamental questions of where “the place” was and if we were actually there. At this point, Kristel and I decided to split up to double our luck, so I kept the driver company while she scouted out the purported resort. Coming back after five minutes, she confirmed that we had the right place and it was basically deserted, but that it might be a nice spot for a couple of hours, with the emphasis on “couple”. To ensure this was the case, we negotiated a price with our driver to return to pick us up. A broad smile either indicated agreement or amusement, so we hoped for the best as we watched him disappear around the corner.
As with the eco-resort that we discovered in Nigeria, the Mermaid resort was undeniably ecologically friendly, as there was no one there to produce any waste. A few staff members poked around the site, but there were no guests to be found. Our tour of the site revealed that the artists must have been quite protective of their works, since they took everything with them when they left. The only sculptures to be found were a wood carving at the entrance and a lonely mermaid looking out over a boggy wetland. The main washroom was a bit of a marvel, though, with an open air concept that was somehow relaxing and unsettling at the same time. The rest of the site consisted of two buildings housing the bedrooms, with the larger of the two having a patio with chairs for relaxing and a foosball table for foosing. As we sat and enjoyed the views of the ocean and river delta, our tour guide for the afternoon arrived.
From his Mermaid Café T-shirt, I deduced he might be a staff member, so we introduced ourselves. “Hi, my name is Shahin,” he said, “but my friends call me Pegasus.” And I thought to myself, why didn’t I think of this before? Here I am, in a country where nobody knows me. It’s the perfect opportunity to give myself the nickname that I’ve always lacked. How easy it would be to say, “Hi, I’m Glenn, but my friends call me Hercules” or “Hi, my name is Glenn, but you can call me Mr. Dressup”. While I worked out the possibilities in my head, Kristel asked him the obvious question of why he was called Pegasus, since he didn’t appear to have wings or be a horse. “Because I’m so fast”, came the reply, with a “how you doin’?” smile that made me abandon my nickname search and jump back into the conversation. I asked him if someone had told him we were there and he confirmed that he had been asked to show us around, so “I jumped on my bike and here I am”. “Wow, you ARE fast!” said Kristel. “So, let’s start the tour,” I said, trying to steer the conversation away from Pegasus’ speed.
And so, we spent a pleasant afternoon with Pegasus, who turned out to be a very nice young man. After a brief chat on the patio, we made our way to the bridge and took many photographs of the boats nearby and the people who work on them. And then it was time to return to Cox’s Bazar. Looking at our watches, we saw that our appointed time with our CNG driver was drawing near, so we asked some of the staff who witnessed our conversation with him whether they thought he would be coming back. Slight smiles and shakes of the head easily translated to “no way in hell”, so we were left to work out a solution with Pegasus. “Well, I can call a CNG for you or we can all go on my bike,” he said. “Ha! Ha!”, I laughed, thinking that Peggy was making a joke. But I appeared to be the only one laughing, so I quickly passed it off as a cough. “It would save us some time,” said Kristel, “What do you think?” I tried to come up with a cool way to say “This isn’t prudent”, but when I asked myself the important question, “What would Mr. Dressup do?”, I knew there was only one answer.
As we approached the bike, I began to have second thoughts. According to Pegasus, the government of Bangladesh has severely restricted the use of sportscars and their motorcycle equivalents, levying a tariff on them that’s stiff enough to discourage all but the wealthiest from putting them on the road. All of this was done in an effort to limit accidents on the road, and while I applauded the government on this initiative, it did mean that Pegasus had a pretty small bike for the three of us. Visions of us hitting a speed bump and losing one of us loomed as we positioned ourselves on the bike, with me occupying the relatively comfortable and safe sandwich seat between Pegasus and Kristel. “Are you ready?” said Peg, and off we went. To his credit, he didn’t try to live up to his nickname on this trip, driving at an easy cruising speed that allowed him to dodge the CNGs and buses that came at us like invading armies. Every now and then, Pegasus would yell something to me that the wind would immediately take away. With no chance of hearing what he was saying, I just kept replying, “Yeah, that’s great!” and hoped he wasn’t asking if he could open it up a little or jump the next bridge.
Arriving back at Cox’s Bazar, we drove down to the beach once again and dismounted. Having skipped lunch, Kristel and I were both famished, so we decided that dinner would come early that day, and given the amount of effort by Pegasus that afternoon, there was little doubt about where we would be dining. So, we thanked him for everything and said we would be heading to the Mermaid for drinks and a meal. “See you there!”, he said, “I have a shift tonight.” Leaving him to find a place for his bike, we walked down the road to the café and arrived just in time to hear Shania sing, “Looks like we made it”. Truer words were never sung, Ms. Twain.