DHAKA: During our four hour train ride from the border to Dhaka we stopped a couple times. At this station people on the platform noticed the foreigner at the window and approached for a better look. Out came my camera and soon more smiling faces appeared... People gather at the train stations to see what the next odd thing might be; this time it is me.
Greetings from Dhaka,
The border formalities took a half hour as officials on both sides insisted on tedious procedures which included copying by hand practically every page in my fat passport. The Bangladesh immigration officer kindly offered to sell me some local currency... at a 20% premium and I exchanged a few dollars worth of Rupees for the Bangladesh takas. After making the crossing I still had three and a half hours before the first train to Dhaka at 12:30, so that left me plenty of time to walk to the railhead in Akhaura a distance of about eight kilometers. Rickshaw drivers swarmed around me like flies over a garbage pit as I came out of the immigration office. A couple followed me most of the way, occasionally pointing out what a long walk it would be. Many local people synchronized their walking with mine to better study this strangely dressed visitor who refused to ride like most respectable foreigners. A half hour into the walk two older guys slowed down to match my pace. One carried a heavy iron "weapon" and murmured continuously to his companion. They spoke in Bangla which I couldn't understand, of course. However, I'm sure they were discussing the best way to dispose of the body after helping themselves to my billions. Twice I crossed to the other side of the road and they matched my maneuver each time. As I started to become uneasy I realized we were far from alone on this country road and that my active imagination had ignored the enormous protection that affords. Eventually, an old woman, who must have been the wife of one of the guys caught up with us and "scolded" them. She hurried along, my would be "assailants" driven ahead of her like cows and they all soon disappeared.
elevated road gave me a good vantage point from which to
enjoy the endless vistas of bright green fields along the
way. Farmers worked the rice paddies using the same methods
perfected by their ancestors eons ago: wooden plows pulled
by oxen. A photographer's paradise, I snapped several
pictures before coming upon some strange-looking haystacks
close to the road; very much like grass huts, empty inside
to speed drying I presume. When I stopped this time to take
pictures several kids interrupted their playing and eyed me
suspiciously. As the curious little crowd grew in size
adults soon overcame their embarrassment and joined their
kids in the festivities. I am quite sure my unexpected
presence on this country road from the border with India
must have been the highlight of the week for many of the
people I saw. Farmers following oxen pulling wooden plows in
the fields stopped their beasts and leaned on the plows to
study my progress.
Akhaura is more of a village than a town, colorful, disorganized and hectic. The road from the border gets lively as it approaches the main intersection at the center of town. The railroad station is situated along an obscure side street crowded by bustling people, minibuses and rickshaws. I located the station by following the train tracks to a nondescript building with something I recognized as a station platform. An unruly mob pressed against the ticket counter in the station.
Several boys asked "What you want?" When I told them the obvious they replied "No more seats. You want to stand?" To make matters worse, all seats on the evening train also had been sold. After my two hour hike to the rail head, standing another four hours lost its glamour, so I shook my head and wandered back out of the crowded area. Several enterprising young touts followed me suggesting private cars and shared taxi services they represented. Pretty soon, all of the taxi drivers were trying to convince the stranded billionaire to buy their services at inflated rates which slowly came down as drivers really got into their competitive bargaining.
In near desperation I seriously considered the offers, but everyone wanted to be paid in Bangladesh taka. The only local currency I had amounted to a few dollars and the transport alternatives all required $50 to $100 dollars worth of taka. As no one would take Rupees, which I had in abundance nor dollars, helpful touts directed me to the local bank. One look and I knew this would be another dark dusty confused expensive experience I could do without. At this point I reconsidered the attractiveness of standing on the train four hours.
Back at the station, the chaos had increased as the train's departure time narrowed. Many hands clutching money were being thrust into the ticket seller's cage. Unperturbed, the agent continued to study some papers on his counter and a computer screen, pausing every now and then to exchange a couple tickets for the proffered money. I saw no alternative, so with pack on my back and jacket stuff bag encumbering one hand, I fished out a 100 taka note and attempted to move it over the heads of the crowd and in between the bars of the ticket seller's cage. The surging crowd made it impossible to reach far enough to attract the attention of the clerk without be totally obnoxious.
On the verge of giving up in resignation I relaxed and pondered my predicament. This village did not seem to offer anything close to hygienic accommodations. In fact I saw nothing that looked like a lodge at all! My visa into Bangladesh allowed single entry with the exit by air in Dhaka only, so backtracking would be expensive, if at all possible. Buying my way out meant fighting the impossible banking battles and paying exorbitant taxi fares.
I can only imagine what Bakul Awal saw on my face when he intervened. "You want a standing ticket?" he asked in halting, but understandable English. "Yes, I do." I replied. "I do too. I'll see if I can't get us both one." he added in his stretched English. An animated conversation in Bangla with one of the teenage boys blocking the window and a request for my 100 taka note produced some quick footwork by the boy. Into the tight cluster of other boys he dove, coming up right in front of the ticket window where he quickly exchange the money for two tickets. Burrowing his way back out he handed the tickets and change to Mr. Awal who promptly handed me a ticket and my 25 taka change. I instructed Bakul to give the boy the 25 taka for his ingenuity and fearlessness, but he insisted that would not be necessary and suggested we find someplace to rest while we waited for the train.
As we waited we tried to carry on an intelligent conversation, but his limited English my lack of any Bangla kept our exchanges simple. Bakul Awal is a solicitor with a law firm in Dhaka and had come here to this out-of-the-way place on some sort of business. While we waited, several people approached him for brief social exchanges, suggesting he knew a lot of people in this border town. When the train finally came he guided me to the dining car, indicating we would be most comfortable standing there. Even with the best standing room on the train, the constant stream of people coming through for snacks and jostling the standees made the experience awkward.
About halfway to Dhaka a commotion erupted and everyone seemed to be urging me to move to the corner of the car where a table and chair had become available. I heard murmurs of "foreign guest" and "Bangla hospitality" as I found myself being passed from hand to hand toward the chair. What a relief to finally sit down... and by an open window at that. Immediately my little sanctuary filled with people curious to know "where from?"
One young man spoke quite understandable, if highly accented English and seemed well informed about things of interest to me. Nilim Rabbi turned out to be an honors student in English at Kolkata University on his way home for a visit. He explained how passengers had decided by acclimation the foreigner should be seated in a place usually grabbed by dining car staff at the start of every run. By the time I had made my way to the empty chair the railroad employee had disappeared, so I never had a chance to thank him.
The train made a few stops along the way. At one large station I pulled out my little camera to snap a picture of the platform activity and people gathered around my window to watch. First a few smiling faces, then more and finally quite a crowd had assembled. I kept snapping pictures and answering "yes" to questions of "camera?" The photos are wonderful. People in the car had suddenly shifted their attention from my nationality to the little gadget people outside were discussing. All in all, a delightful cultural experience for me. Speaking of nationality, as a prudent American traveler I always try to maintain a low profile. Gratuitous questions about my nationality usually produce "California" as a response. It is amazing how many people do not know exactly what or where that is! Most, however do recognize the name.
Preoccupied in the corner I had lost sight of my protector, Bakul (pronounced something like buckle) and now wondered where he had moved. Shortly, he appeared with a train conductor and explained they had found me a vacated first class seat for the short remainder of the journey. He indicated only one seat had been found and I hesitated not wanting to loose track of him again so close to our destination. He insisted I follow the conductor with the assurance he would find me on the platform when we reached Dhaka. In the first class car my seat companion sat stoically silent and I yearned for the noisy camaraderie of the packed dining car. True to his word, Bakul rushed up as I stepped off the train and guided me out to the chaos of downtown Dhaka.
A number six bus took me to the Sonargaon Hotel which had been suggested as the best in town by helpful people in Guwahati. Pack on my back I walked into the most pretentious, ostentatious luxury hotel I'd seen in some time. The $225 rack rates gave me sticker shock immediately and the impeccably uniformed reception clerk quickly noted a discount could be arranged for such an esteemed guest. For a mere $158 plus tax and service charge I too could be a guest in this most prestigious establishment. One of the advantages of starting at the top in an unfamiliar city is that staff are usually gracious about suggesting more financially manageable options. Here, that would not be the case. To my questions, the haughty clerk indicated the only nearby alternative would hardly be considered "decent," but reluctantly gave me rough directions to the Sundarban Hotel not more than a hundred meters away.
While not luxurious by any means, the $40 Sandarban definitely met my minimum standards of "decent." Situated among several nearby mosques my morning started at 05:35 as over zealous muezzins sang out their amplified calls to prayer. Far from the center of things and run by a bunch of surly men I ventured out the next day in search of more appropriate alternatives, however. The Sheraton Hotel not far away looked like a fortified American Embassy surrounded by walls and patrolled by guards armed with automatic weapons. The $30 Hotel Razimoni Isha Kha very near the center of town is a peculiar house. Built above a recently constructed three story shopping center, access required climbing a spiraling enclosed driveway around three sides of the building, not unlike a parking structure driveway. The lobby looked new and elegant. The dining room beckoned with its fashionable furnishings and tasteful decorations. The lunch I had that first visit convinced me this would be my new home for a while.
The only problem turned out to be the Soccer World Cup series and the army of athletes in town, accompanied by their entourage and truck loads of armed soldiers to protect them. The hotel would be able to accommodate me "tomorrow," though. Tomorrow came and I switched hotels only to discover I had been assigned a decidedly mediocre room; no TV, old furnishings, rotten view, no privacy inside lock, you get the idea. Reception told me a better room might be available tomorrow. "Tomorrow" I checked at the reception desk and learned the hotel still had no better rooms. "Perhaps tomorrow" I heard again as I prepared to leave the hotel on my usual morning exploration, today for more hotel shopping. I did indeed find several more better options than the "make do" room I currently enjoyed.
As I returned to check out of the Rajmoni, one of the reception staff motioned me over and said they had a better room for me. I insisted on seeing the new room before committing again. Sure enough, this time I found myself in a most acceptable temporary abode, still only $30 a night.
Strangely, both hotels I'd tried had posted signs in all their rooms informing "Only you are responsible for your criminal offence. Management" I never did get a credible explanation of the notices, though one of the bellmen mentioned something about drug problems and government requirements.
Traffic in Dhaka is as congested and hectic as I've seen anywhere. Bumper to bumper traffic with motorcycles and auto-rickshaws darting into unimaginably narrow openings among the rickshaws makes both walking and riding a harrowing experience. Rickshaws regularly bump one another and mild arguments ensue. Surprisingly, I never saw a really bad accident, probably due to the fact traffic mostly crawls from jam to jam.
Most public transport uses old, damaged equipment, dirty inside and out, inevitably over crowded. After that first newer #6 bus from the train station I never found another I wanted to use. Buses stopped at certain corners and conductors jumped out to shout their destinations in a sing-song voice guaranteed to confuse even locals and make street crossing on foot a nightmare. At one particularly congested corners a double deck bus conductor bribed a traffic cop to extend his allowed waiting time for more passengers.
One sees few women on the streets of Dhaka. If you want to see women other than riding in a rickshaw, visit the shopping centers. Here, store after store offers an endless selection of fabrics for sarees. This is a Muslim country and I expected every woman to be clad head to toe in black chadors. That certainly is not the case for the majority in the capital city of this Muslim country.
I see the usual flock of beggars, few of whom appear to be truly needy in this relatively affluent part of the Indian subcontinent. The numbers of beggars on the street increased dramatically on Friday, the Muslim "Sabbath." A shop owner responding to my questions about one particularly deformed fellow replied "Don't pay him any attention. That is just his business."
There is plenty of political unrest in this country. During my brief eight day stay the main opposition party increased their demands that the party in power make concessions on a long list of grievances (most of which sounded quite reasonable to this naive visitor). Finally, out of patience they called a nationwide strike, a hartel. Everything remained closed, save hotels and other tourist related operations. The streets remained deserted other than a few busses and rickshaws. Protestors burned cars and threatened riot police. Not far from the hotel a wild demonstration turned ugly and 150 people were hospitalized when government loyalists attacked the demonstrators. I saw none of this personally, though my rickshaw drove down the very street where all the excitement occurred that day.
There are plenty of cyber cafes in Dhaka, but few have USB ports and fewer have legal copies of Windows XP. All seemed to be feeding grounds for hungry mosquitoes, at least three of which feasted on American blood. Rates vary from 42 cents to a dollar an hour. Connectivity is problematic and unreliable.
While in Dhaka I pondered a number of alternative side trips. Bhutan is close and I figured a trip might be cheap. Wrong. The government charges $200 per day for an all inclusive "visa" including room and board. The flight would have been an additional $326 round trip. I passed on that.
Next, the $233 government operated four day boat trips into the Sandarban jungle where tigers lurk, looked attractive at first glance... until I learned of the Spartan accommodations provided on the river boat: common toilets and showers, hard bunk beds, plus all the mosquitoes you can swat. As I considered the trip a newspaper article reported eight people had been killed by tigers in the preceding twenty days. That did it; sign me up. In the end, impossible scheduling and personal sensibilities made that choice untenable, too.
So, on the spur of the moment I decided to head on down to Kolkata by the next available flight and taxied over to the airport, bought a stand-by ticket and flew out.
Until the next episode,