Travelling in Bangladesh: survival of the fittest
I wanted to go to Bangladesh.
It wasn't exactly a "dream-destination" of mine (not one on my "dream-list"), it was rather a deep urge, almost like a deep, rumbling, nearly growling voice inside of me, telling me that I had to visit that country.
The world's most populated country.
a tiny surface- and millions of people.
One of the poorest countries on earth.
One of the biggest muslim nations.
Looking at it on a map, one sees millions of waterways- looking at the news, more often than not, this country is flooded and under water because of all its water and its plains and flatlands.
My dear friend Caroline's mother, Mimi, warned me to not go. She had once been, travelling through, for work, and she told me there is absolutely no reason to go. In fact, it could even be dangerous.
I sort of half-promised her to not to do it, because I do respect this woman a lot- but the growling inside me turned to howling, and I knew I had to go, I had to do it.
I had a vision of arriving in India overland.
I was on a long journey, which had started in Thailand, where I was doing some thai massage courses, moving on to the Philippines, where I visited friends and family and did some diving certificates, and then back to Thailand, where I wanted to cross Burma, to get to Bangladesh, to enter India.
It proved impossible to cross Burma, so I decided that since I already have spent some time there, I had to forgive myself for not managing that bit- I knew how strictly Burma was controlled by the junta- I had witnessed it with my own eyes when I travelled there in 2003.
So I flew Bangkok to Dhaka, with Biman Bangladesh Airways.
It was in January 2005.
The experience of Bangladesh started already in the airport-lounge.
People were staring at me.
Crowds of people staring.
I was the only white-skinned, blonde person boarding that plane.
As we started preparing for take-off, instead of the mandatory, usual safety-demonstration, the airhostesses, dressed in golden, stiff saris, paraded through the cabin in a procession, holding up air-freshener sprays above their heads, which they continuosly pressed down throughout their stiff, quick walk through the cabin, leaving clouds of spray as they went by.
Their procession left a toxic smell of chemical flowery air-freshener, and then the plane took off. No one was told to use their seat-belt; seats were reclined and tray-tables were down. Children were running around, climbing back and forth over seats to different family-members, and the crew were not to be seen.
But we got there.
Landing in Dhaka... I don't really remember anything. What has happened, is that the scene has already taken on a third-person-dimension. I don't remember how I felt, how it smelled, or the temperature. I only see a scene: a young, blonde woman, carrying a huge, green-and-black backpack, her head covered in a dark red shawl, trying to look cool and as if she is not slightly shocked by what she is experiencing. She is walking through huge groups of people, who have all just stopped dead and silent to stare at her, trying to seem perfectly at ease, and as if she knows exactly where she is going.
I have travelled quite a lot. But even for the most experienced traveller, arriving in Bangladesh is an intense experience. People had warned me about the arrival in India; that no one can be prepared. I think I got this here, that feeling, which people had warned me about. Except I had prepared myself to feel it once I arrived india- not really reflecting over the fact that Bangladesh was an even more extreme and dense version of India.
Arriving in the area of Gulshan where I had asked to be dropped off, I sort of thought i'd be strolling down that main road and just serendipitously bump into my destined guesthouse, as I had looked briefly in a lonely planet guide for Bangladesh in a second hand bookstore in Bangkok. (Ah, yes, I travelled WITHOUT a guidebook too.)
So I walked, huge backpack on my back.
Having imagined myself taking a chilled stroll along that street proved to be just... imagination.
It turned into a huge struggle, where I had to be aware, awake and alive each second, to not be spat on (by paan, that red beetle thing they chew on, which requires spitting, which in Bangladesh means spit wherever you please) and not to be stepped on, not to be pushed off the tiny sidewalk (which I shared with contorted polio-infected beggars, fruit-sellers, sheep & goats, and a constant stream of people)
So to in a chilled-out manner be discovering a guesthouse as it happened to come up, proved impossible, as all of my attention was focused on just walking, sharing, not falling, not hitting, getting myself out of the grip of begging children, not be spat on, etc.
Besides, all signs were in Bengali script.
I was wondering what I had gotten myself into, quite a few times during this walk. The road seemed never-ending, and I just kept walking- had I stopped, I would have interrupted the very quick flow of movement happening on the street, possibly creating a domino-effect.
How I got to the guest-house, I have no real memory of. I do remember having a chai; stopping for a tea at a street stall. It cost 2 taka. (that's like... doesn't even exist in Europe, that's how little that is)
I sat down on a piece of junk, serving as the chai-bench, and drank my sickeningly sweet chai from a tiny dollhouse-cup and from there, I must have come up with a plan.
Next thing I know I am standing in the reception of the guesthouse. There are possibly 10 young boys working there and just hanging around in the large room, containing a reception and some sofas. Another tourist is checking in- a Japanese guy- the only other foreigner I see in central Dhaka the whole time I'm there.
They give me a room, however reluctantly. The fact that I am alone, a woman, travelling alone, and wanting a room to myself, is not ok, according to the receptionist.
After much discussing he agrees to allow me the room on the condition that I call my father and tell him where I'm staying, and put down my father's name on the receipt, with his phone number.
The room is awful.
There is a bed with a thin, ugly, dirty mattress. There is an old, dusty, smelly wooden bedside table with a dirty ashtray on it. No sheets on the bed- just a pile of old, grey blankets.
The floor is made of stone, and hasn't been swept after the last guest- or possibly not ever. The bathroom stinks, has no ventilation, a cold stone-floor, a toilet (un-flushable), a tap with a broken, red bucket underneath it, catching the brownish drops pouring out of the rusty tap. There is a broken, dirty sink, and a cracked mirror where my face is only partly visible.
A tiny, narrow corridor of about two meters, after the bathroom, leads to a "window"- a windowframe, with broken shutters- and the view is: the opposite neighbours' kitchen-"window". And cables. Thick, unruly cables, tied together in chaotic patterns, supplying this part of Dhaka with its sporadic electricity. There is possibly half a metre between the two buildings- no air comes through the narrow, dark lane. The room reminds me of a prison-cell. But little did I know, that soon it would turn into my refuge, my sanctuary, from the craziness of Dhaka.
My first evening in Dhaka was a complete shock. I don't know what I had expected. Maybe friendly, open people, inviting me inside their little houses for chai? People calling out their goods on the streets, children asking me my name? Sure. Right.
Dhaka was hard, chaotic, rough. People were focused, and the movements were quick, determined.
No chilled-out tropical vibes at all. This was a serious survival-of-the-fittest-race.
I tried every second NOT to have my toes chopped off from all the thousands of rickshaws crowding the streets.
It was a spooky experience, walking on the side of the streets, alongside all the moving rickshaws.
You see, they were cycle-rickshaws. Not many engine-driven vehicles were on the streets.
The cycle-rickshaws were silent as they moved, except for one thing. They all had bells, which the cycling driver used frequently, feverishly, to not crash into another rickshaw. They all had to fight for such little space- and yet, there were so many of them trying to forge ahead.
So they all rang their bells.
Thousands of bells ringing.
Thousands of rickshaws in a seemingly chaotic pattern flowing in all directions.
Thousands of people walking quickly in processions along the sides of the street.
If I didn't stay in the fast-paced flow, I would have lost my toes and I would had been knocked over by another pedestrian. The flow was quick, almost pushy, and a feeling of very raw, basic survival, hung across the city.
And there was silence, except for that of the bells ringing.
No chatting, no screaming- just plain focus.
And bicycle bells.
I landed in a restaurant across the big street I had crossed with much effort, on a parallell street to "mine" where I was sent to the women's part. I got my own little cabin, completely covered in curtains, so I could not see or observe life in the restaurant.
I wrote in my diary that night: "Bangladesh is like God vomiting people, and he has the worst flu imaginable. People in all directions, people, people, people. streams of people, hordes of people, moving fast, synchronised, chaotically, but forming lines and rows and parallells, depending on which direction they are moving. Like a parade of ants working feverishly to get to their goal."
The next morning I woke early and had my yoga practice. I didn't put my mat directly on the floor as I was afraid to be too close to it- it seemed so dirty, so creepy- so I used one of the cleaner looking blankets I had been given to put on the floor and kept it there, putting my yoga-mat on top of it. As I practiced, I heard the city waking up, its sounds trailing up through the narrow lane, and travelling into my cell-like room.
Voices, sharp voices.
Kitchen-sounds from the family across, cooking. Screaming children.
A tiny beam of sunlight was visible through my broken shutters. It was filled with dust.
I dressed myself as modestly as I could, covering my head properly, and walked out onto the street.
It was still early morning and the air was very cold. I felt quite good, for the first time, thinking that I had started to find the flow, somehow, even though I could not say that I liked the flow particularly. The hardness of the people was so surprising to me- and I couldn't understand it until afterwards, as I got some perspective on life, poverty and crowdedness in that country. It was just not comparable to the lazy, tropical, smiling coconut-tree fringed destinations I'd been to so far.
This time I found a "normal" eating place, without a separate, curtained-off section for women.
I did understand, however, why it was beneficial to separate women- especially light-skinned ones, I suppose.
They stared so much at me, every single soul in that crowded place, that I got dizzy from all the big, brown eyes looking at me. The waiter didn't even come up to me at first, as he was just.. I guess... shocked, at my appearance in the restaurant and didn't really know what to do about me being there. All the customers also looked shocked. They'd all stopped mid-breakfast to stare.
I sat down at a table and just waited for their surprise to settle. Eventually the waiter came up to me, and just continued to stare, and I made an eating-gesture, and he eventually left for the kitchen, and then came back out with food.
They served only one thing in the place, which I discovered was the case in most places. They specialised in one or two things, and people came to that place to eat their specific food. Easy. (for me.)
I ate with my right hand, paratha and potato-curry, and drank super-sweet chai.
Every move I made, was closely followed by big, brown eyes. Every single move, I mean... every move. The big, brown eyes moved with my movements and would not let go of me.
After breakfast I walked around the increasingly sunny, dusty, crowded Dhaka. I had my camera with me and thought I'd go on one of my "normal" travelling excursions where I just walk around and let life take me wherever I feel like going, down whichever lane looks appealing, stopping for chai or coffee whenever there was a tempting stall.
But Dhaka was different. All my focus went to staying in that flow of movement. otherwise I would have been knocked over, seriously so. There was no time for strolling, chilling, discovering. There was only raw, simple survival in each moment.
And whenever I wanted to have a chai-break, again, a crowd of big, brow eyes would follow every single move I made. They would stop, interrupt their flow, as if they were actually not really going anywhere- just moving along quickly, quickly, to stay in the flow, to survive- but they would stop in front of me, create a half-circle around me, and just stand there, and watch me, silently. Children would sometimes come up to me and allow me to touch them or joke with them, but the adults did not try to make any contact, and when I tried, they just turned away and I could see a tiny embarrassed smile on their lips.
The street-life was exhausting to me. It was so different from everything I had ever imagined or experienced before in my life. It had taken me by such surprise, life in Bangladesh, and I could only be inside it for short periods, and then I needed a break.
So my room became my refuge, my sanctuary. It was semi-silent, it had no eyes staring at every move I made- I had my music and my books, my yoga and my isolation from the madness.
The only thing I had to deal with was the boys from downstairs coming up to knock on my door about four times an hour to offer me ashtrays, pillow-cases, to sweep my floor with a dirty broom, or to ask me if everything was ok. When i stopped opening the door at each and every knock, they started singing Bengali love-songs outside my door, which I both enjoyed and cringed at. These boys were like half my age!
Ten days in Dhaka.
Ten days of going outside in the street in small portions, then spending hours digesting everything in my sanctuary-prison-room. I did a lot of headstands in that room, trying to make sense of this crazy place.
Ten days of seeing the most scary shit that can happen to a human being's body when affected with polio. These (always men or boys- where were the women?) people sometimes had legs, tiny little legs, stuck behind their head, or grown out to the sides, like lifeless tentacles frozen from electric shock. Dead limbs.
They had built little carts for themselves which they used to roll along the sidewalk, like little skateboards.
Ten days of watching goats and sheep dressed up in colourful garments. It was the ten days leading up to Eid-al-Fitr, one of the biggest Muslim holidays, where the cattle would be slaughtered and eaten. So they were taken to the city by poor people from the country, who tried to sell them on the street.
Ten days of eating samosas on the street, drinking sweet chai from little street-stalls, going to "restaurants" (serving their specialty) eating my paratha and curry while being watched by the waiters and the customers.
I ended up finding my favourite eating-place, in the roundabout where I had first been dropped in the Gulshan area, close to where the daily collection-place for dead bodies was located.
It became my favourite not just because I liked the food, but because the waiter didn't JUST stare at me- he actually went and filled up my plate with more food without me having to interrupt his staring and ask him to please pay or please bring me a chai. He did stand there, close to me, while I ate, looking at each movement I made. i mean... each movement. The standard look.
Yeah, the dead people. Did I mention the dead people?
Each afternoon, a row of dead people were dumped at this one spot outside my favourite eating place.
They were lined up, usually they looked like they had been living on the street their whole lives. Dirty to the point of grey in not just their clothes and hair, but their appearance, all grey, dusty, dirty.
The first time I saw it, I felt sick. I thought, no, I cannot go and eat now! I've just seen a bunch of dead people!
And then I looked around, disgusted, horrified at these poor people lying there, dead. But all I saw was... the usual flow, the constant stream, the people moving in all directions in a strong focus, and that eerie sound of the bells from the rickshaws.
And I quickly had to realise that LIFE GOES ON. We are still here. Alive. Let's just get on with it. Life is rough, life sucks, but as we are here, might as well keep on moving.
This was a very tough moment for me.
I've grown up protected from death and poverty. I've grown up protected from major disasters. I've grown up feeling a lot of compassion for the poor people in our world, and with a desire to "do something" to "help".
And, in fact, I had NEVER seen a dead body, until this moment.
The feeling inside of me had to shift at that point.
How can I not eat, just because these people are dead? I'm still here. The rest of us are still here. One day I will be lying there, dead and grey and gone, and others will have to go on with their lives. Life does not stop just because one person leaves this existence.
So I straightened my back, and somehow moved from idealistic and naive vision to a more hard, reality-based view of life, and I went to have my meal.
I saw many, many dead bodies after this moment, and it turned into a sort of fascination for me.
How can death be such an everyday occurence? So open, so "normal"? So integrated into daily life??? It could not be more opposite to what I was used to in Sweden regarding death where it was put away, hidden, behind closed doors, hush hush.
I walked around the dusty cattle-market one day, just a few days before Eid. There was bargaining and animal-poo, haggling and animal-pee. I carefully climbed around and over puddles, trying to avoid slipping in the muddy pools of excretion.
Suddenly I realised that there was a crowd. My instant thought was "is there another westerner??" as the crowd had formed around someone, just like they crowded around me wherever I stopped.
But no. It was a guy, who had just dropped dead.
He was lying on his back, and someone was just covering him with a sheet. His stiff toes were sticking out on one end, and the top of his head at the other end. Someone else lit a bunch of incense by his head and stuck it into the ground. The crowd was silent, staring.
No one noticed me.
I was amazed at the scene. No one called the ambulance, no one panicked. They all just moved silently, efficiently, the rest just looked on. I realised that I had adopted this Bangladeshi habit of looking. I stood there, together with the crowd, I was one of them, and just looked. It was an amazing scene, and it was a break from the flow of surviving in the movements of the street. Almost like a moment of "amusement" to put it morbidly. A break. Something different.
So I created my routine. Each morning chai, paratha & potato curry, and then a stroll (Dhaka style focused) through a new neighbourhood. I did find one that I particularly liked, though- it was close to my hotel-street, and it felt very "neighbourhoody" and had lots of food-stalls; tandoori-ovens, samosas frying, fruit-stalls, chai-wallas- and as I walked here, I could relax a little from the focused walk, as not that many rickshaws could fit in these narrow streets.
Every time I came here I would gather a whole crowd of followers. I would have about 40-50 men, women and children following me, cheering, laughing, and mimicking me as I took photos with my camera. Whenever my camera was pointed at something, about 16 heads would pop into my lens, as they all wanted to be captured. I loved this particular walk, as the people here seemed more relaxed, happy, free. We laughed a lot and sang some western songs. I think it was Madonna.
I have numerous photos of Bangladeshi people, all quite serious-looking. It seems it was a special moment to many people, to have their photo taken. After, they were almost embarrassed, and quickly walked away. Too bad I didn't have a digital camera at the time- it would had been awesome to show the pictures to each person modelling. I'm sure most of them has never seen a picture of themselves.
I had decided to leave Dhaka on a boat and go west, towards India. I was going to a smaller town, and I really looked forward to being on a boat. Again, I imagined an exotic type of experience, where I'd be peacefully moving along on a boat, seeing the flatlands and rice fields move by, and all that green beauty in front of my eyes. The rivers and waterways would stimulate peace and i would arrive safely in that small town I was headed for.
Funny vision. Again, it was only imagination.
I got my ticket for the boat a few days in advance. I was tired after ten days in intense Dhaka, where I had also finished the extremely difficult project of getting an Indian visa. (I never realised how many Bangladeshi people were trying to get out of there... and how long lines could reach... kilometres, I swear!)
On the afternoon of the day the boat was departing, I was quite happy to leave, but also amazed at how I had assimilated to life in Dhaka. How I was moving along so fast with the crowds, picking up a hot samosa on the way, stopping to stare when something interesting was occurring in the street. I was walking with my backpack on my back, flowing with the people in strict lanes, towards the Dhaka port.
I was getting an uneasy feeling from the amounts of people out on the streets. This afternoon, people were not just being vomited by God in irrational, chaotic spurts, creating lines and rows.
This afternoon, moving towards the port, was more like... struggling for a tiny space to breathe. More people than I could have ever imagined were going to the port. It was like being on a crowded concert were all the fans are going crazy at the exact same time, jumping in frenzy, fanatically in their own worship, unaware of the others around them, just inside their own bubble of frenzied worship and focus.
I did not really understand what was going on- but I started to sense a strong feeling of uneasiness and worry inside me- and the desire to get the hell out of this place was screaming loudly now.
As I got closer to the boats, people were literally fighting. I was elbowed and pushed aside as I tried to go through the gates. I tried to ask one of the guards what was going on but he just hysterically pointed to a ticket booth. I squeezed and elbowed my way there and was given a piece of paper- which I eyed suspiciously and tried to ask what it was for- but I was just waved on and pushed aside by the people around me.
So I tried to follow the crowd, and didn't have to make much effort, as I was soon just pushed along by the forces of all the thousands of legs and arms moving in the direction of the huge ferry.
As I got down to the pier, I was stopped by a man in a uniform. He was quite a big guy for a Bangladeshi man, and it turned out he spoke very good English (one of the few ones I met there!).
He told me the ferry was full.
I said "but i have a ticket?" and he said "nope, boat is full, you cannot go with this boat" and literally stood in my way.
This is where my memory goes blurry again. Because somehow I suddenly seem alone. There are no other people around me. It is just me, and this uniformed man, and that huge ferry behind him.
I understand that this is impossible, as I have just in the second before been surrounded by tens of thousands of people. Of course we are not alone. But, the feeling I had was one of complete isolation and loneliness. I felt so alone in the world, with no one to turn to. The world as I knew it crashed around me.
And I broke down, for the first time since i arrived in Bangladesh. I couldn't handle the pressure, the people, the death, the poverty, the dirt, the stink, the non-communication, the staring, the rats, and now... being denied access to the ferry which would take me away from it. I had had enough and had reached my Dhaka-limit.
So I started crying.
The poor uniformed man asked me what the matter was, if I was ok, and I pushed him aside, feeling ashamed of those hot tears burning in my eyes, feeling ashamed and spoilt coming from the rich part of the world, unable to bear all the things i had seen in the past ten days... and i strode up the pier as proudly as I could (not very proudly with the huge hunchback weighing me down) and went up to the street, hailing a rickshaw, and asking it to take me to the train-station. I was determined to get the hell out of there.
The rickshaw ride started just at dusk, and we rode through a part of Dhaka that I had not yet discovered. Market-stalls were lit up by kerosene lamps, and decorated for the Eid with tacky colourful flowers. It looked so cozy, so sweet, and I felt a little tiny sense of "like" for Dhaka for the first time, despite my decision to get the hell out of there.
Arriving at the train-station, it was dark already, and I went to one of the numerous ticket-booths, and stood in line. As it was my turn, I was suddenly pushed aside by a group of boys, and as my Dhaka-limit had been reached just recently, my behaviour was also changing.
I screamed at them, in whatever language that came to mind, and physically pushed them aside, resuming my position at the ticket-booth. They looked shit-scared and went to the side, to just stare at me, as i finished my purchase.
I was told by the person behind the counter "no train, no train" but I did not take this seriously. I knew I had to get out of there, no matter what. So in the end we somehow settled on the train leaving the next morning, on a 3rd class train ticket. Little did I understand the complexity of a 3rd class train ticket, but all good and well, at that point I thought I was finally getting away and out of the city.
So I went to find myself a hotel room for the night.
There were many of them outside the station, so I just picked one, and walked inside, asking for a room.
"No husband, no father?"
"Sorry madam, no room"
So I went to the next place. Same conversation. Next hotel. Same. Next one. Again. Same.
I gave up. I sat down on some steps outside the last hotel I had tried. I opened up my newspaper-wrapped samosa packet and started eating. I felt numb- I knew I was getting out of there the next morning, and if I had to sleep with the homeless people in the station, I would. I didn't care anymore. I had somehow hardened through these ten days, and after crying in front of that man for not getting on the boat, I felt a sense of shame for being so spoilt, thinking I had been more important than anyone else. "I have a ticket"- how stupid. How western.
As I started eating my beloved samosas, I suddenly heard a voice coming from above me. It had an east London accent, and it asked me "Are you alright darling? What are you doing sitting here?" sounding more like: "uaight daa-ling, wha' u doin' si-in' 'ere?"
I looked up, wondering if I had been dreaming. It was like a voice of an angel, saving me from my homeless misery. A voice form the west, from a place where people talked to me, understood what I was saying, and not stared at every move I made.
The angel was a Bangladeshi man who had moved to east London when he was young, but who still had businesses in Dhaka- he owned several hotels.
Finally I was let in on some important secrets which would had been super-convenient for me to know before travelling in Bangladesh.
For example, that very day, was the biggest travelling day of the year in Bangladesh. Most people wanted to get to their families and villages that day, because the next day, the very important celebration of Eid would commence. To try and travel on that day was to choose to travel together with the poorest, most desperate people- particularly on public transport, on the ferries and on 3rd class carriages in trains.
Regarding hotel rooms, almost no hotel in the whole country would accept a single woman. Bangladeshi or foreigner, did not matter, but actually, a foreign woman was even worse, because, as he put it, it would "encourage hanky-panky."
It was stated in the law of Bangladesh that women were not to be omitted to hotel-rooms unaccompanied by husbands, brothers, or fathers.
The place I had stayed in, earlier, was one of the few exceptions, but it was, in fact, breaking the law.
I wonder if I had gone to Bangladesh, had I known this beforehand? Probably, yes, I guess. The growling inside me was too persistent.
So this east London angel Bangladeshi man helped me get a room. He didn't want me in his own hotel, as it was not possible now after we had had tea together in public, so he gave me directions to another place, which he called ahead and informed that a hanky-panky foreign woman traveller was on her way to pollute the place for a night. I was so grateful, I was so happy, I was so tired, and I fell into bed, ignoring the knocks on the door and the Bengali love-songs being sung outside the door. I slept so well, and I was ready to fight for my survival and exit the following morning.
The train was only like 4 hours late. Nothing.
Once it arrived, it was packed.
And by packed I don't really mean that all seats were taken. I mean, seriously, to every square and corner and shelf, it was filled with people. Even the roof of the train was full of smiling people.
Ok, some people got off at Dhaka central station.
But then the whole platform, full of people and luggage, was gonna get ON. Including me- and my determination had reached new heights. Ten days in the survival-of-the-fittest-land-of-Dhaka, had turned me into something quite different.
My elbows were sharper, I was pushing myself onto the train, along with sweaty, huge women balancing bags and children and infants- I pushed in all directions with my huge backpack, and I got on the train. Yey!
I started to feel a slight panic as I realised I had to get off quickly- bag and all- and I found a lioness' strength, (I might even have roared) lifted up my huge bag, pressed it out the window as I screamed to people to get away to not get hit, and then I climbed out the small window, just as the train started to move. There was a nail in the window which my trousers got stuck in (I was wearing these, you know, traveller's pants, thai fisherman pants, with a lot of fabric) and as I fell out from the window, train moving, my trousers got torn, all the way from the very bottom, to the very top, and as I landed (not so smoothly) on the platform, I realised that women were looking at me, horrified, and soon came running towards me with shawls and blankets to cover me up, as I was showing ALL OF MY LEGS to the whole platform- obviously everyone was already staring at me, and then on top of this, I was showing all this skin- VERY BAD ACTION in a very Muslim country. I was so grateful to the women helping me, and while they covered me, I found some new clothing to put on.
We were just outside of the city, and the air already felt fresher, and I could see flat fields far away.
Everyone sat down on the platform ground to wait, and many settled to stare at me. I was now used to this pastime of staring, and sat myself down, too, on the platform ground, and stared right back. Some shared fruits with me, I shared samosas with them. We had a silent staring dialogue.
Eventually the next train arrived and the next struggle started.
For hours, I then stood up in the carriage. Not many people could sit down- there was no space. I was thinking of the poor people up on the roof.
As the day went on, towards the afternoon, it started easing up in the train. We stopped to drop people off at every little village.
One of the conductors came to me and started talking. He said i should not be in 3rd class, my ticket was for 1st class. I told him he was mistaken, but he insisted i come to 1st class, and bring my bag. So I did, and thought, well, he's probably just horrified to see a westerner in 3rd class, as this is far from common. Actually, i guess he's never seen it.
He took me to a beautiful compartment, helped me inside with my bag, and then he closed the door behind us. And locked it.
I realised I had made a mistake. I tried to stay calm.
He sat down at the bench opposite me and started asking me about my father, my brother, my husband. Where are they?
I kept looking at the door, wondering how I would get out of there.
He noticed me looking and went to stand by the door.
Then he motioned towards me and said he is going to sit next to me.
I moved with reflex, went past him faster than lightning, and went to open the door, whose lock I had already from a distance figured out how to work. I flung the door open wide and then reached in for my bag, told the dude to f**k himself, (in a language he did not understand) and went back to 3rd class where i belonged.
Why had I come to this country, one may wonder. It was a real struggle every minute. I felt vulnerable, I felt i was an easy victim, I felt had I gotten sick, no one would have cared, understood me, or helped me. This was the place of taking the little piece of life that you can grab, to try and survive. the survival of the fittest.
I arrived in Jessore late at night, and by now, I was so tired, so angry, and so hardened inside. I hired a rickshaw to go around with me until I found a place to stay, and it took me about 6 places of "no room" until one reluctantly agreed to give me a room, for maximum two nights.
It was a proper luxury hotel for Bangladeshi standards (with the sort of budget I had moved within) and it had a TV. The TV had channels from other countries. Western countries.
I spent the two days doing short walks around Jessore, witnessing the slaughtering of the cattle- and damn, that was bloody, blood was flowing, animal carcasses hanging out to dry, animal heads on display, and meat being grilled all over the place. In between streams of blood and halal slaughtering I was in my room, eating samosas, parathas and drinking sticky sweet sodas, eagerly watching the BBC, Discovery channel, some kids' channel, and all of those, you know, the ones that are classic hotel-room-channels. I was so eagerly watching TV, it was almost like I had been starved for weeks and now finally got food and water. I understood what people were saying inside that little speaking box.
I arranged to leave to India after those two wonderful days of contradiction in Jessore- blood and BBC- and was given a ride on a donkey-cart across the border to India.
I walked across, had my passport stamped, and entered India- had to take a local train to get to Calcutta- and arrived in india very un-dramatically. In fact, arriving in India was so much a relief, as I now could read some signs, people spoke English, and did not seem even the least impressed by my presence.
As soon as I got to my new hotelroom in Sudder street, Calcutta, I let go.
I got the biggest Delhi-Belly possibly heard of.
Relief rushed out of me- relief that I had not gotten sick in Bangladesh. Relief that I had in fact survived, despite all the lingering dangers and obstacles. I did it. I entered India overland, as I had visioned myself doing, and I had spent two weeks in the most populated country in the world- and one of the poorest.
I had learnt many lessons- unexpected ones- about survival, and about life and death.
I never regret anything, and I really do not regret this journey.
But would I ever go back?
Hm. Maybe with my husband, father or brother, if one of them can ever possibly be convinced of such a curious act, which I strongly doubt.
But actually, I think I lost some of my western naivety on this trip. It opened my eyes in many ways, as to how different life is in a poor country. How the fittest survive, how you have to create your life with your own hands, and fight your way ahead with your, preferably, sharpened elbows.
How life in the economically comfortable west is somehow too cushioned as it tries to hide some very real facts: for example, death. (Life exists only because there is death. Opposites only exists due to each other.) We sweep it under the carpet as if it were something strange, something not belonging to our life. I think it makes us forget that we will, in fact, die one day- it makes us living a slightly deluded existence, blanketed underneath fences and central heating, insurances and seatbelts. Which, in turn, I believe, makes us lose our survival instincts and thereby our passion and strength- which we all, obviously, are born with- and then culturally and economically, religiously and socially conditioned to form into different directions and shapes.
I somehow lost my naive sense of thinking that I would be granted a place on the boat just because I have a ticket.
Better to take responsibility, like the clever ones had done, and arrive early to secure your space.
In the west this would translate to the situation with the traffic light. Don't just walk because the light is green. Take your responsibility. Don't just stand there stupidly and watch the empty street just because the light is red. Take responsibility for yourself, for your safety, for your survival. It's your life, in your own hands. Use your legs, feet, head and elbows. Don't just expect tickets and lights to do it for you.
A visit to Bangladesh should definitely be recommended to those who lost their appreciation for life... especially useful for single, unmarried women, especially at Eid-time!
But I warmly recommend bringing at least a guide-book, if not a man of some sort... :)