Tawhidur Rashid meets up with barrister duo and real-life couple Omar Sadat and Shukla Sarwat Siraj in their home which is a treasure trove of mementoes collected from around the world
What was the last place you traveled to?
Where in Mexico did you go?
To start with, we went to Mexico City and from there to Merida, to the heart of Mayan culture. Our next stop was the Mexican Caribbean coast. The beaches there are too beautiful to behold. We stopped at the Playa del Carmen, a beach town nearby. On our way, we were fortunate enough to be able to see one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza, the Mexican Pyramids.
Was there a special occasion and when did you go?
We went this Christmas. During the holiday season, it’s very festive and my family members who live there are free around this time. Usually, at this time of year, we plan a long holiday. Being lawyers, we have long and stressful working hours around the year. So, we really look forward to this little period we have to ourselves.
Do your sons travel with you?
Yes, both my sons were with me. My elder son is 15 and the younger is 13. They are also prolific travelers and are adventurous like us.
Between you and your wife, who is tasked with organizing the adventures?
Before organizing a trip, both of us do a lot of research. We have lots of books on travel. There are also lots of resources available online. The people of Latin America are a lot like us, like Bengalis. They are very emotional. We both read many books by Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so whenever we visit those countries, we can relate to them.
Last year we went to Cuba, this year we went to Mexico. We have plans to visit the rest of South America, like Chile, Peru and the rest. More often, when we go to a country we try to follow their art. We go to their art galleries and live cultural performances. We go on historical expeditions to understand their history and culture on a deeper level. We also go on adventures because we need to keep our boys happy. Therefore, it’s a mix and match of everything that makes our trips so enjoyable.
We also follow popular travel magazines which feature an entire tourist destination. We have ticked the popular tourist destinations off our bucket list. Now we usually look for places which are not too popular amongst tourists, but the locals know about it well. We have books about places that we haven’t been to but have plans to visit. It is always about the culture, history, adventure, the food and lifestyle of the local people. Our holidays are not about shopping; we are not interested to do stuff that we can easily do in any big city. Whenever we travel to a place, we try to bring the essence of the place back with us.
Do you collect mementos from the places you travel to?
We do. If you look around, the things we have are not very expensive but cannot be bought from a shop. Everything has a little bit of history or a story of how we acquired it. We usually bring just a couple of things from each place we visit. Everything we brought has an interesting story behind it. Some stories include chasing the memento, breaking it and then crying for it.
Please tell me about the time when losing a memento made you cry.
There are quite a few interesting things that broke on the way back. And there are valuable things that I found in the middle of nowhere. For example, once we were on our way to a place called Kaikoura on the Pacific coast of New Zealand. We came across an old warehouse in the middle of nowhere. It was a shop selling many things and the shopkeeper could not care less about them. There, I found this pipe, it’s actually a cigarette holder made of leather and produced by Longchamp, Paris. I don’t think the seller had any idea how valuable this item was.
There is another artifact we got from a flea market in Vienna, Austria. When we looked it up it was quoted as “priceless”. There are many more fascinating things we discovered in shops other than the flea market. I have a four-hundred-year-old French artifact which I collected after a lot of struggle, it was broken into pieces when the doorkeeper of our hotel room dropped the bag in which it was kept. You will actually need to do a separate interview on our antique collection if I start to narrate the story behind each of them. All the furniture you see around you was specially selected by us keeping our collections in mind. This table in front of you is a hundred and fifty years old from the colonial period. We were looking for a long table, the shop owner told me that this table had been sitting in his store for more than 35 years. As it is too long, no one can fit it in their living room. He said, “I should actually pay you for having it removed from my shop”. We shipped it to Bangladesh and since then it has been sitting looking pretty in our living room. We got this piece of furniture from Spain just after we got married. There is an inscription here, it says, “Hijrah” carried out by our Prophet (PBUH) is a big part of human civilization. The oldest collection that we possess is called the “Dancing Princesses” which are from the time of Alexander the Great.
(Pointing to an antique saddle) What about this piece?
We went to Wyoming, USA. From there, we found a little shop on our way to Yellowstone National Park. I had a good feeling about this place. I found this in that shop. It dates back to 1904 and it played an important role in several rodeos. It also came with a certificate. It was made by German immigrants who started doing business in the US. We were in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. This piece brings back the essence of that part of the USA. We could not carry it with us as we had to travel a lot, so we sent it forwards by post. We posted it to two different cities. Finally, it was waiting for us in Texas as we were getting ready to head back home to Bangladesh. The shipping cost was actually a few times higher than what we paid for this piece. As you can see, this house is all about our travels, we have a five-hundred-year-old piece from an Austrian Church. We got it from a small village called Lesh near the Austrian Alps.
I got this sitar last year, after a chance encounter. Both of us are into music. Another prized possession we have is a painting we got from Cuba. It was drawn by two aboriginal sisters who grew up separately. One sister grew up in the city and another one in the forests. Each sister drew half the painting and the red line separating the two halves represent bloodlines. Interestingly, aboriginal artists do not sign their artwork, instead, they leave their palm impressions behind their painting. We got this from Cuba, we were surprised by the richness of Cuba’s art scene, both new and old.
Do you have a favorite city or place where you would like to go back again and again?
Oh yes definitely! In my case it’s London. I keep going back there over and over again. London is like a home away from home for us.
Which part of London attracts you the most?
I studied at Cambridge, which is truly an amazing place. It’s like a time machine, it takes you back one thousand years. One of my professors once told me nothing has changed there in the last eight hundred years.
Is there any particular landscape which you felt was like heaven on Earth?
I love Bangladesh. As we travel more and more we have come to realize that our country is very beautiful, both of us agree on that. Unfortunately, we have managed to make a huge mess out of it. Consider the Chittagong Hill tracks, I would rather spend my time there than anywhere in the world. Honestly, as we travel, we realize there are more things in this in the world that unite us than create division. I think we should be building more bridges than walls.
I would like to go back to one particular place. When we went to New Zealand, I thought to myself, this is it. It was the place of my dreams. I felt like it’s somewhere still waiting to be discovered. Iceland is also a place like that. These are the places I am always wanting to go back. But ultimately, we feel homesick after two weeks. Both us finished our education abroad, we could settle there if we wanted to. We got promising job offers, but we decided to come back home. People were critical of our decision and were very skeptical. I believe no matter where we go, this is the place we belong to. This is a wonderful country, the people here are the most resilient in the world. Maybe things are not perfect but it is the root of our happiness. In all these years, we have never felt like leaving the country. Our children go to schools here and all of us have Bangladeshi passports. We are totally committed to our country. We travel a lot but this is where we belong.
Since you travel so much, do you have a favorite cuisine?
There are quite a few actually. Wherever we go, we have a habit of going to a local fancy restaurant but street food is mandatory. When we were in Mexico, our son found out where the best Churizo can be found in Mexico City. The food was amazing! No matter where we go, I have realized, old civilizations tend to have great food. For example, Mexican, Chinese and Thai food are famous all over the world. I think older the civilization the more complex its food preparation is. Take biriyani, for example, the preparation process is long and it takes a lot of spices to cook I correctly. I would like to mention Hungarian food we had while we were there. I feel like Hungarian food is underrated. They haven’t made a name for themselves like Chinese or Thai but I think they are right up there. Interestingly, the Chinese food we know is not all they have to offer. China is a very big country and every region has its own unique flavor. When I had a “surpacha” in Yunnan, I realized they are using our traditional vegetables. Their food had more Indian flavors than Chinese. We really know of only a small proportion of Chinese food, there is a lot to explore.
This question is for both of you, are you more of a hill or a sea person?
We like to explore the people, the culture and history of a place rather than just the landscape. We usually go hiking everywhere we go. In my case, I used to be a very stressful traveler as I used to keep a bunch of checklists about the places I should visit and things I should do. Over the years, I have grown out of that habit and learned to relax and enjoy the place I visit. I personally follow a saying of Indira Gandhi, who says she never used to leave a country without going to their museum. I think this a great way to learn about a country.
Is there any such travel experience you regret?
I personally think every place is the same. Our interaction with the place defines the experience. My eldest son who is in boarding school is coming home and we asked him where he wanted to go. He mentioned Bhutan. He identified Bhutan as very laid back and pleasant place. Out of all the option he chooses Bhutan because he finds the place relaxing. We had an incident in Naples, we went there after we got married. We were on our honeymoon; we were initially warned by our friends that we should be careful in there. We were on our way to Pompeii. At Naples train station, a guy came up to me and offered to sell me a video camera. Video cameras were not very common at that time so we already had plans to buy one. He asked for two hundred euros for the camera where the market price was six to seven hundred euros. The camera was working properly so I decided to buy it. When I proceeded to pay him, he asked for five hundred euros. So we argued back and forth and a few moments later agreed to sell me the camera for two hundred euros. After we got on the train, she opened the box and found that it was full of bath salt. We concluded that during the argument, he changed the box. She started crying in front of a train full people. So, because of this experience, we haven’t been back to Naples. Even though it is a wonderful place.
There is another interesting story. We were on the second day of our honeymoon and we were on a cruise. I had a big fight with her, the biggest fight we have ever had. And because of that, the trip got ruined. Therefore, I think there is no such thing as a great place or a bad place. It totally depends on the person. You are in full control of your experience, you get to decide how you want to remember it. So to answer the question, “Can anyone be unhappy in a beautiful place?” You can be unhappy in the most beautiful place in the world.
Is there any place you want to go and settle down after retirement, other than Bangladesh?
If there was one it would have to be Cambridge; I have been hearing from him for too long about that place. For me, if I am fit I would like to travel to places which do not require a lot of running around. As I grow older I want to go to laidback places where there will not be any pressure on my health. These are the experiences through which our children will remember us. As you grow older, there are very small things you remember when you look back at life. The time that we traveled together is my most precious memories. My father in law was a prolific traveler and I think he successfully passed that on to his children. Whenever we go to a place, my husband tells my kids to bring their wife and kids on the same spot someday and remember us. We always advise our children to travel and learn from the experience. Traveling helps to create a character, it has the power to make or break relationships. Nowadays, people say not to buy expensive things but instead to spend money on experiences. I completely agree with them and we are trying to do the same with our children. We are providing them with experience. Experiences like hiking or snorkeling. While traveling people should always try to seek adventure, things that add to their life experience. A lot of people hold off traveling until their children are old enough. In my opinion, life is short. Your children can travel on their own when they are adults but you are growing old. So my suggestion does not wait!!