Bangladesh, the Tourist Guide
My first trip to Bangladesh
Before the Internet took over, India and Bangladesh used to be countries of letters, populated by willing correspondents, or so it seemed the first time I travelled the Subcontinent, with my school friend Lachlan in the winter of 1995-6. Nearly every day someone would ask for our address: someone we'd become friends with or someone fleetingly met at a bus stop or in a restaurant. In return they would supply their addresses, in the hope of becoming 'pen friends'. After two months in India we had quite a supply of addresses, bundled together on small chits of scrap paper. By then, when we looked through them, there were addresses of people we couldn't remember; especially when it was their village address they'd given, which gave no clue even to the town where we'd met them (sometimes for about thirty seconds). It's why we'd adopted the habit of adding little notes on the chits of paper, like 'mirror-man, Patna' or 'high-forehead, bus stop, Tonk'.
Perhaps it should have come as no surprise then, when, after completing immigration procedures at Benopole, on our way into Bangladesh where we planned to stay just five days before exploring South India, the Bangladeshi immigration official asked us to wait while he inscribed his address on a piece of paper. 'Can I be your pen friend?' he asked. It's one of my earliest memories of Bangladesh.
We were travelling with Mahbub, a Dhakaiya businessman we'd met on the train before it left Sealdah. He'd agreed to help us through to Dhaka, and was waiting to accompany us to the bus ticket counter. It must have been a reasonable company he chose, for he took it too.
Years later, a Bangladeshi friend of mine and I were reading an old English textbook in Bogra. In that book there was a passage on travel, and in it was written 'every tourist needs a good guide', a sentence we gained great amusement from, because after that, whenever anything went remotely wrong (missed a bus, forgot to buy water) I could quote the line and accuse my friend of not being up to scratch. He was, after all, the local. It was even possible to blame him for the weather if you used the line a little creatively. As we're still friends he must have got used to me.
The reality is, however, that in Bangladesh, at least for the western tourist there are approximately a few million guides ready to assist with anything, although the number was smaller in 1995-6. From even before we crossed into the country, in the form of Mahbub, Bangladesh offered assistance; and it was a feature of travel in this country we found standard.
I don't remember much of the journey to Dhaka; I've travelled that road a good number of times and it's easy to confuse the first with later journeys, but I would have been peeled to the window, enthusiastically examining the Bangladeshi countryside, enjoying its beauty.
By the time we reached Dhaka, it must have been Gabtali, it was night, which was not a worry for Lachlan and I since we never pre-booked accommodation so as to keep our travel schedule flexible and after two months in India we were used to arriving in unknown locations at odd hours.
Sometimes it took an hour or two to find somewhere to stay, sometimes we must have paid too much for the taxi, but things had always worked out in the end.
The only difference that night was that I was sick, and tired from the journey, so I wasn't looking forward to the two-hour hotel search. Besides, Dhaka City was nowhere in sight.
I needn't have worried: it seemed that just has India had her own ways for rearranging the best travel plan we could make, of giving little surprises and organising things to her own liking, on this side of the border Bangladesh could do the same.
On the bus Mahbub had asked if we wanted to stay at the Sheraton or the Sonargaon: it was a common assumption that westerners wouldn't stay anywhere else. He took some convincing that we really wanted to stay somewhere much cheaper. At Gabtali he told us to wait, and to our surprise around ten bus passengers, including the driver and conductor, stood in a loose circle and commenced a serious discussion that ran for a good ten minutes. As it was in Bangla we couldn't understand a word. 'I think they might be deciding where we'll be staying,' I said to Lachlan. He shrugged. There was nothing to do about it.
When the collective decision was made, two young bus passengers we'd never spoken to hailed a baby taxi and bargained for a minute or two. Mahbub said we could go with them and he'd meet us later. What to do? We loaded our backpacks and ourselves into the back of the baby, with the two bus passengers sitting front side, turning to introduce themselves to us. I was glad they did that.
It was normal to be a little nervous as we drove off into the night: we were in a baby taxi with people we didn't know in a new city in a new country going to, well, somewhere. But we'd spoken to Mahbub a lot on the way and it was enough to have some confidence he was honest, and the way they'd stood in a circle and openly discussed where we would go: I reasoned any malevolent plan would not unravel thus.
It was a long way, but eventually we pulled up outside a small hotel in Bangshal Road in Old Dhaka. The guys from the bus came upstairs to the reception, bargained for a room, waited until we were settled, and then left. It was all a bit surreal and I'm not sure we thanked them properly. The room rate was probably the cheapest in our entire time in Bangladesh and I have some doubt that particular room has ever been rented out at a rate cheaper than ours. Come to think of it, the baby taxi fare was incredibly reasonable too. 'I like Bangladesh,' I thought, as I drifted to sleep on the first night.
In the morning we discovered the reason for the choice of hotel: there was a knock on the door and outside was Mahbub's younger brother. 'Mahbub said I should come to show you Dhaka,' he said after introducing himself, 'I live across the street.'
We visited Lalbagh Fort and Sangsad Bhaban, and a number of other sites, I can't recall which, but we were busy the whole day, and the next day too. However, the most impressive feature of Dhaka, and as it turned out Bangladesh, had already revealed itself: it wasn't the buildings but the people. On our first two or three days in Dhaka we had dinner invitations: it's not all countries that can manage that! We met Mahbub's family and his brother's family, and we attended Mahbub's homecoming party with his friends. I was embarrassed because I couldn't eat much; my stomach had been churning like a washing machine since Kolkata and my head was regularly throbbing. I asked Lachlan to eat more to compensate.
We decided to go to Comilla next and agreed to take the train: it would be longer than a bus but we wanted to experience a Bangladeshi train. I had one condition though: as I was sick I would not be waking early. We had no idea what time the Comilla train left so we'd have to chance it. The night before we'd said goodbye to Mahbub and his brother, promising to send the shared photographs after a month or so when we developed them in Sydney.
By the time we reached Kamlapur Station it was already 10 a.m. The Comilla train had left at about eight. We didn't know what to do, but as we had a guidebook we could have worked it out, except we didn't have to. In the few minutes we stood there looking lost, a gentleman, a sociologist as it happened, approached and asked if we were alright. We explained. 'You'll have to take a bus then,' he said. Before we could stop him, he hailed a baby taxi, bargained the price, got in with us and travelled what seemed to be a good distance across the city. It must have been to Sayedabad. In the confusion of the bus station, he told us to wait while he searched out the best Comilla service. Even then he didn't leave. He waited for the conductor to come and sell us tickets from our seats, to make sure we weren't overcharged. We chatted until the bus was ready to leave, and then, finding a scrap of paper and a pen, he wrote his address. 'Can I be your pen friend?' he asked.
'Enjoy your time in Bangladesh,' he said as he left. 'Bangladesh is clearly going to take more than five days,' I thought.
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