My first trip to Bangladesh
Before leaving Sydney we had the kind of bold plans only youth can muster. We wanted to see everything in India, preferably twice, before our three-month university holidays expired. I would be travelling with my old school friend Lachlan, who had proposed the India trip. It was our first foray to the Subcontinent, in the winter of 1995-6 (summer in Australia), and we were young and ambitious.
I remember the farewell at Sydney Airport: my parents and his. His mother was just saying how important it would be for us to look after each other while on the road, when I accidentally dropped my passport on the terminal floor and nearly walked off without it!
There was, of course, too much to see and experience in India to make definitive plans, but ultimately, pre-arrival, we'd settled on a direction: ours would be a clockwise tour from Rajasthan and Delhi to Kolkata, then somewhere South India and back to Delhi.
Bangladesh, embarrassingly, was something of an add-on, although I'm pleased the suggestion was mine. I was studying the map one day in Sydney, dreaming of all we would experience and where we could go, when I noticed just how close to Kolkata the Bangladeshi border was. 'Now there's a country I know nothing about,' I thought, 'might be a chance to find out.'
Lachlan was a worthwhile travelling companion for he would agree to any reasonable idea. He was also more practical, which did me good. He agreed to Bangladesh dependent upon whether or not we needed a visa and how much it was going to cost. We asked our travel agent who had a 'where's that?' expression on her face. She'd never sent anybody to Bangladesh before, but had enough curiosity of her own to like the idea. She was insistent we tell how it was on our return. After a few days and a little research, she got back to us with the answer: we did need a visa but it was free! As there could be no harm in having a free visa stamped into our passport, of course we did it; we could decide later whether or not to use it, but at that moment both my dreaming and Lachlan's budgetary concerns were satisfied.
After that I started reading about Bangladesh and my excitement grew.
It's funny because, even to this day, all these years later, when people still routinely ask why Bangladesh?, the first thought to come to my mind is 'well, the visa was free so what could I do?'
India had much to teach: there were sounds never before heard, sights unseen, smells un-smelled and a feast of novel tastes to make us feel like Rajasthan kings. More than that, it taught us to let go. Western societies have a small obsession with logic and systems: it has its advantages but feeds the human trait of control over environment, experiences, everything; and in somewhere as exotic for us as India, it simply couldn't work. If you've ever tried to buy a train ticket there, you'll understand: it could take hours, lining up in several queues before a special trip to the office building out the back to see if we would be allowed to travel on the VIP quota. And it could happen that, setting out to take a train we would find ourselves on a bus; if we set out to see a historic site, we could easily find ourselves chatting over tea in a side street with the locals instead. India didn't allow our western desire for micro-management, and when things didn't go as we'd planned, we learnt with time to shrug and say 'India will decide'. And decide she did.
Long before we came close to Bangladesh, I would say, I'd changed as a person. Once we'd relaxed in the face of poverty unimaginable to us; once we'd realised that the poverty didn't mean every single person was out to rob or cheat us, that in fact the level of honesty was staggeringly high; once we'd begun to understand that the world, as bad as it can be, was indeed populated, by and large, with essentially good people, we could properly enjoy the trip. It was a question of faith: use your best judgment but leave a space for the rhythm of the Subcontinent to be your compass.
Now that I've thought about it more, I might put it this way: logic itself is cultural. That was the lesson.
I mention the change because it let me open, upon finally reaching Bangladesh, to the soft flurry of a Bengali breeze and the brute force of Bangladeshi hospitality; we were ready for the living poetry of Bangladesh. We had hired bicycles and ridden uncharted to Rajasthan villages, we had discussed culture and life at length with many Indian locals, we'd enjoyed impromptu home visits and unexpected movie shows in small towns. In Varanasi I learnt the theories of kite flying. In Sawai Madhopur we saw tigers and talked Indian recipes with the cook and at a Jain temple in Ranakhpur I turned twenty-one. We wanted to know the Subcontinent, that was the point, and it seemed, by letting go, we might have gained the opportunity to know most of its people personally. That was the surprise.
Bangladesh slipped from our minds for the first two months of our trip, around Rajasthan and roughly following the Ganges towards Bengal. It was really only in Bihar that Bangladesh re-emerged, and it wasn't a pleasant experience.
We were on one of those timeless Indian train journeys: 'timeless' here meaning 'duration of uncountable hours', which is not to say we didn't enjoy the Indian railways. However, on this occasion, sitting opposite us was a Bangladeshi family, the first Bangladeshis I had ever seen, and their children were running riot through the carriage, jumping on the seats, screaming full-lunged and howling like wolves. Their parents were entirely overwhelmed and underwhelming. Secretly I was scared those hours of noise might dissuade Lachlan from crossing the border in Bengal: I was already attached to the idea. Fortunately Lachlan wasn't dissuaded!
First-hand accounts filtered in when we reached West Bengal. One or two foreigners we met had been to Bangladesh, and their comments were negative: there was more to see in India and we'd be better to spend time in South India. The Indians had a different idea: Bangladesh was beautiful, the people friendly and we would really enjoy our visit; any Indians who had been here wanted to come back one day. And the western-written guidebook we had agreed with the Indians.
I didn't need to, but I'd bargained with Lachlan, 'we have the visas, let's go for five days and if we don't like it we'll just come back to India. After five days we'll go to South India regardless.'
On the day we set off from Sealdah I was sick. The Kolkata hotel we'd found on our student budget was directly above noisy Sudder Street and it had no glass in the windows, which for me meant the end of sleep. We bought the tickets and took our place in the carriage of a Bangaon-bound train.
And there, in the carriage at Sealdah, Bangladesh was waiting.
Mahbub (not his real name) was a Dhakaiya businessman on his way home from a business trip to India. It wasn't hard for him to guess, from our bloated backpacks, that we were on our way to Bangladesh too. He asked anyway, in English, and our affirmation was received with a broad smile. I don't remember the specifics of the train ride adda so there can't have been anything unusual in it. We must have talked about our trip around India and his, we would have asked about Bangladesh: exchange rates for Taka, tips on what to see and where to go, all the usual things. Mahbub promised to help us all the way to Dhaka.
Three years later I can say it's not surprising that this country would send an advance welcome, Bangladeshi hospitality being what it is, but I didn't know that then.
At Bangaon, Mahbub organised a baby taxi (I'd never heard that term, for in India we'd always called them auto-rickshaws) to take us from the train station to the border. We cleared Indian immigration and customs without fuss and found ourselves at the Bangladesh gate.
And so I took that first fateful step inside this country.