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One Night in Bangladesh

  

Originally published in C1 2 Sunday Focus THE NATION; Bangkok, Thailand

Bangladesh — one of the world's poorest countries and admittedly not a hot-spot on the tourist circuit. The mere mention of the name conjures up images of war, famine and natural calamity. Whereas other South Asian basket-cases such as Burma, or even war-torn Cambodia and Vietnam, manage to find their ways onto the cramped itineraries of today's tourists, Bangladesh stands cloistered off in the shadows, a gloomy spectator, unloved and unrecognized by even the most intrepid travelers.

Despite all this — or perhaps because of it — I wanted to take a chance ... Having flown into Dhaka on business, I would not fly out. Instead, I would travel overland from Bangladesh into India via the remote and rarely used check-post of Chiliharti.

I set out from Dhaka, the capital, by train. The first leg of the journey would be a sixteen-hour sojourn to a railroad hub known as Pharbatipur.

Once outside the big city the landscape begins to open up. The crowded streets, the buildings, the shanty-towns lining the railroad tracks all give way to blooming lush fields of rice and jute, saturating the land with soothing hues of emerald-green and lemon. Palm trees, lazily inclined, emerge almost incidentally from the meadows, and press against the azure, tropical horizon. Flooded rice paddies and lakes abound, thinly populated by small, flimsy crafts carrying sacks of grain.

There are thatched-hut villages, with no electricity or running water. Bullocks pulling loaded carts; cows yoked together, dragging small Bengali boys perched precariously upon wooden-ploughs while churning up the wet earth in preparation for the next harvest. The. train shuttles past myriad. bridges suspended over rivers and ravines. Flotillas of huge black bulls, luxuriating in the brown water, can be seen, only their bony horns, moist snouts and blinking eyes visible above the water.

Other idyllic images rush by; the women, dressed in the flowing robes of their traditional saris, the young children, usually naked, waving and shouting at the passing train, families of goats or cattle lazily rummaging for something edible or procuring a propitious patch of grass to rest in.

For hours and hours there is only the splendid mosaic of jade-green and butter-yellow meadows of rice and jute, carved and formed by the unending array of estuaries and rivulets that lace their way through the fertile soil of this, the Ganges and Brahmaputra river delta over which Bangladesh is draped.

At a certain point we approach the mighty Yamuna River, one of the two great rivers -- along with the Ganges — that both bless and curse Bangladesh with their powerful currents, en-route to the Bay of Bengal. Everyone leaves the train to board a large ferry for the two hour river-crossing to a waiting train on the other side.

In the ferry, it is Bangladesh at its uncensored best. Red-shirted coolies with brown turbans are running everywhere, offering to carry baggage or find a seat for a rupee. There are hordes of beggars, many with congenital malformations or mutilations of some sort, who flock at you for some scrap of food or small change. In this land of unassuaged poverty, an amputated limb confers a Darwinian advantage; a greater likelihood of arousing pity and receiving alms. There are invariably huge crowds of people who simply gawk at you, sometimes in groups of over a hundred. The Bengalis, either because of the infrequency of encountering foreign tourists or their astonishment that anyone would be crazy enough to visit their country. gape at you in unabashed, dumbstruck disbelief

I move up to the deck to escape the multitudes. The view is spectacular. The Yamuna River is vast and wide and the vision of scintillating green fields emerging from its embankments and stretching sublimely into the distance is one of the more memorable experiences I have of Bangladesh.

After reaching the other side we resume the train journey and arrive in Pharbatipur at 9 pm that night.

Bangladeshi reality now comes crashing in from all four sides ... Pharbatipur, referred to as a major hub in the Bangladesh railroad system, turns out to be little more than a grubby, little depot consisting of a single, muddy street.

I am taken to the sole resthouse to be found in this raggedy village; a one floor walk-up with the auspicious sobriquet of "Hotel Deluxe." After ascending the garbage-strewn stairs I encounter the proprietor of this esteemed flophouse who appears as mystified and alarmed to see me as I am at being here. Having a strong suspicion that this place will not seriously dent my wallet I immediately, and with great gusto (not having this opportunity too often), announce to the thunder-struck owner that "Money is of no consequence. I want the best room in the house!"

After this resounding proclamation I am whisked into room number one, a seedy, old cell with a creaking, wooden platform for a bed, a 15-watt bulb barely flickering and, I am assured, an attached bathroom. I open up the door leading to the bathroom to have a look… I enter ... In an instant I am on the verge of vomiting; another moment I begin to feel as if I am suffocating.

It is the filthiest, foulest, most abhorrent place I have ever seen in my life. My head begins to reel. Clutching at my throat, I burst through the door, smacking my head against a low-lying beam. Dazed, I inquire into the possibility of another room ... Maybe another hotel, any-thing ...

"There are no other hotels and this is the best room," the owner informs me in an admonishing tone. 'Thus I resign myself to my fate. I go to sleep fully clothed for fear of encountering uninvited, crawling guests. And order my body to avoid any actions that would require me to use the bath-room.

The next day, I am in the mail car on the train en-route to Chiliharti. The Bengali in charge of this car was nice enough to let me in so I could avoid the crowds in the other cars. Out here, there is no such thing as a reserved seat. Halfway through to Chiliharti I discover that there is an ulterior motive to my friend's kindness. His two front teeth missing, he smiles and makes that universal gesture known throughout the civilized world but nowhere better than Bangladesh.

Rubbing his thumb and first two fingers together he whistles through his teeth the immortal word "Baksheesh?!"

A fairly burly Bengali, I inquire as to his fee. "Twenty Rupees" he trumpets. My ticket to Chiliharti only cost me seven. "Five rupees, and not a rupee more," I rally back. He than points to the dozens of faces pressed against the locked doors and windows in the two adjacent passenger cars, as if to say, "Do you want to change cars?" I look forward and backward. The crowds are ominous. I have this entire car to myself. Twenty rupees suddenly appears to be fairly reasonable.

Two hours later we arrive in Chiliharti. I stop at the immigration check post. The border official, a small, balding Bengali, dusts off the holy book with the ancient inscriptions of the previous foreign travelers who have braved the passage through Chiliharti into India. The pages are yellowed and faded. The last insert, a Pole of all countries, dates back about a year.

I inscribe the required numbers, dates and figures with grave solemnity while the bald official presides over this singular ceremony with studied dignity. After laying down my pen, the official shakes my hand. There are tears in his eyes.

Outside the immigration enclave, a bevy of circling cycle-rickshaw wallas, prowl about the entrance like hungry lions waiting for a kill. The distance from Chiliharti to the Indian border is about eight kilometers. With barely contained greed, the wallas eye their prey, me, as I approach them. I hop onto the nearest rickshaw and begin this, the last leg of my journey, out of Bangladesh.

We pass through Chiliharti, a small, dusty village, roasting in the sun like a cracked peanut. I notice the vendors selling the usual local delicacies: anemic strands of onion mixed with flour and fried, known euphemistically as a "fried cutlet", along with fried chapatis and fried, sweetened gristle shaped like pretzels. I could feel my coronaries constricting. Bengali rood consists almost- entirely of carbohydrate and grease and anyone planning on spending more than a few days here had better be prepared for a bout of malnutrition. We proceed.

There are numerous rivers and lakes with precarious bamboo bridges that must be passed. We travel through traditional, pristine villages with nursing mothers in saris and children playing around their cozy thatched-huts; the ubiquitous fields of rice and jute where the men, with knotted muscles and browned, sun-baked skin, toil night and day.

There is not the slightest taint of modernisation. It is an Eden of unalloyed simplicity and beauty. Here you do not encounter the crush of profound poverty and despair seen in the larger cities of Bangladesh. The people live simply but seem to have enough.

The road ends and we continue on foot for another two or three kilo-meters through brush and tall grass, past the final Bangladeshi check-post. After another kilometer we come to a river.

Beyond the river I can barely make out a small shack. I am told that this bamboo shanty is the Indian check-post and that the river marks the border. I look at the river, then at the walla. After a brief consultation and the promise of additional baksheesh, I arrange myself comfortably on the walla's sturdy shoulders. We wade together across the waist-deep water into India.

The Indian soldiers on the other side greet me with yelps and laughter. I continue alone a few kilometers to the first Indian town, known as Haldibari. As soon as I arrive I order a meal.

Bangladesh, not a major tourist spot and perhaps for good reason, at least manages to preserve, in some places, its natural beauty and traditional rural life-style; if you can put up with it, it's worth seeing.... But not for too long.

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