The last of our Flashback Bangladesh Specials. We hope you enjoy the last of Glenn's journeys through Bangladesh in the mid 1990's.
"Let's go", Sharif exclaimed, rather unexpectedly; "we want to arrive by midnight".
"What's the hurry?", came my puzzled and somewhat surprised reply; "it's only 4.30pm. A six hour leisurely journey, should get us there by 10.30pm". More than enough time for a nice cup of warm tea before slipping between the sheets for some well deserved "shut eye", ahead of our meetings the next day, I thought to myself. Some things are better left unsaid; just go with the flow!
I guess I shouldn't really have been surprised. I had known Sharif for long enough to know he had a tendency to be impatient and anxious. Always arriving for meetings early then panicking about making it to the next appointment on time. Of course, arriving 20 minutes early then waiting for 30 minutes to actually begin the next meeting, when the customer finally arrived. Like I said; "just go with the flow"!
The journey from Dhaka, the largest and capital city of Bangladesh, to Pabna was a perilous undertaking and one I had done many times over the years, beginning 1994. For all of these previous journeys the total travel time was around 12 hours. Not a huge distance at 150km so "how? and "why?", you might ask, does it take 12 hours to make the journey. Well, please let me explain.
Bangladesh is a very undeveloped country. To say the roads, especially in rural areas, are poor would be very kind. The narrow roads (if you can even call them roads, goat tracks may be more appropriate) are totally inadequate for the large volume of traffic; cars, buses, trucks, donkey carts, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians. Oh yes, let's not forget the stray dogs and occasional heard of goats, ox or other beasts straying on to the road.
The buses and trucks presented the most danger. The drivers seem to consider themselves as Formula 1 Drivers and the rural roads, their Formula 1 Grand Prix race track. Perhaps it is the fact they are much larger and heavier than the other road users they believe they have right of way, in all circumstances. They overtake when one shouldn't overtake, just moving back to their own side of the road with microseconds to spare. The battered metal panels and paint scrapings testimony to the nearness of disaster. Alas, disaster often struck. It was not uncommon to come across an accident site. The crumpled vehicles, and often their occupants, sprawled at the side of a road or at the bottom of a steep embankment, half submerged in a pond of water or stagnant creek. Extreme caution is required on this road, so the progress is very slow and painstaking. "I'll just get out and walk" I would say to myself many times; "I will certainly get there faster". Just go with the flow!
Bangladesh is a very low lying country, crisscrossed by many rivers. During the wet season the rivers can become raging torrents. Midway in the journey from Dhaka to Pabna one encounters the Brahmaputra river, originating in India and flowing through Bangladesh all the way to the Bay of Bengal. It is a very wide river but alas, unlike today, no bridge crossed the river back then. To continue the journey to Pabna it was necessary to leave your vehicle, board a ferry - passengers only, no vehicles - cross the river, to be met by a waiting vehicle, that had travelled from Pabna 75km away, to complete the rest of the journey by road.
Now, you may recall I mentioned this is a very wide river and indeed it is. If you could just sail directly across, it would take a mere 30 minutes or thereabouts. In days gone by, that was certainly the case. Not now! In their wisdom, India constructed a dam, in India, of course, causing the river level to drop substantially in Bangladesh. Exposed sand banks and shallow areas make it necessary to "snake" up and down the river to safely navigate from one side to the other.
The Ferry that crosses the river is an experience in itself. Very large, capable of transporting a couple of hundred passengers at a time. It could however, certainly do with a fresh coat of paint and a considerable amount of "elbow grease" to remove a layer of grime. We always splurged on "first class" tickets, paying the hefty fee of USD4. We felt like high flying VIPs as we climbed the metal ladder to the upper deck. The Ferry full loaded, a loud horn just above our heads, on the roof of the Ferry, signalled our imminent departure. That deafening sound certainly cleaned the cobwebs out of the ears! Off we sailed, meandering up and down the river, inching our way across. Periodically, an attendant appeared with freshly cut coconuts available for purchase at a modest price. The coconuts were on a metal plate balanced atop his head, as he deftly ascended the steep ladder to our first class deck. Or, if your not in the mood for fresh coconut milk, how about a glass of water, freshly collected from the river?! It was amusing to watch the process should a passenger (not me!) request a glass of water. A bucket, with rope attached, would be cast over the side of the Ferry into the river. A bucket of "pure" Brahmaputra water would be hauled back up to fill a glass for the customer to drink. The customer would down the glass in one gulp! It was a very nice brownish colour, I must say! Perhaps I missed out on one of the worlds great pleasures by not sampling the "pure" Brahmaputra river water. At least I avoided risking a serious bout of "Delhi Belly". Go with the flow! Go with the flow! On this occasion literally, as we went with the flow of the river. Three hours later, time to disembark on the other side of the river, then locate the waiting vehicle to take us the final 75km to our destination, the town of Pabna, where one of our important customers was located and eagerly awaiting our arrival. Once there, I would be treated like a king. I would stay in their guest quarters for two nights and be looked after by my own personal attendant. He would cook three meals a day for me; delicious curries and breads. It helped me recover from the tiring and perilous journey and prepare me for the return journey to Dhaka.
Nowadays, the Brahmaputra River en route from Dhaka to Pabna is crossed by a massive bridge, several kilometres long with two lanes each way, constructed with help from government of Japan. Thanks to this bridge the average travelling time has been cut from 12 hours to 6 hours. Still a long time to travel 150km but a 50% saving nonetheless.
How does that saying go?; Ah yes; "Sometimes the best layed plans go asunder!" Anyway, I have digressed from my initial story, so let me now return;
Let's go", Sharif exclaimed, rather unexpectedly; "we want to arrive by midnight".
"What's the hurry?", came my puzzled and somewhat surprised reply; "it's only 4.30pm. A six hour leisurely journey, thanks to that new bridge, should get us there by 10.30pm".
In we climbed, into the Toyota minivan, Sharif and I in the back, driver in the Drivers' seat, of course. Unfortunately, not the latest model Toyota and one that looked like it had had some altercations with those trucks and buses on the "Formula 1 race tracks" of rural Bangladesh. A red paint scrape here, a blue paint scrape there, a dent or two in the side panels.
We set off precisely at 4.30pm, navigating through the congested city streets of Dhaka to a constant cacophony of blaring horns, loudspeakers broadcasting policies of the local political party or soundtrack of the latest hit Hindi movie. More than once, it was necessary to stop due to a traffic jam caused by bicycle rickshaws, their two rear wheels locked together in a tangled embrace. At last, after one hour we reached the outskirts of the city. "Maybe now we can pick up some speed", I would say; "Watch out for that truck!; Where did that bus come from?"
We settled into a steady pace, the Toyota's engine purring along like a contented kitten, the driver frequently taking evasive action to avoid an oncoming reckless bus or truck. Despite the darkness descending upon us, no chance of sleeping during this journey! We never had any accidents, our vehicle never became a car wreck. But, by the end of the journey I was usually a nervous wreck!
After three hours we reached the bridge across the Brahmaputra river, 75km from Dhaka and marking the halfway point of our journey. Right on track for a 10.30pm arrival. Can't wait for that nice warm cup of tea!
What a magnificent, majestic bridge; a marvel of modern engineering! From one side of the bridge you cannot see the other side; several kilometres long, two lanes each way, the supporting pylons reaching for the heavens. So surprising to see such a bridge here, a stark contrast to the low technology surrounding it. I think; somehow I am going miss that journey across the river by Ferry. Although very basic facilities and time consuming it was interesting, captivating and mesmerising, all at the same time. A bridge instead of the Ferry; it just seemed so.... civilised..... dull..... uninteresting. I bet I don't see anyone plying this bridge selling coconuts or casting a bucket on a rope into the river, 20 metres below, to quench the thirst of a thirsty traveller! Progress!
"What was that noise?", I asked Sharif, precisely as we reached the crest of the bridge halfway across the river. "What noise?", Sharif replied, coming alert from his state of semi-slumber. Perhaps the noise was Sharif snoring. I began to relax again. "That noise! There it is again", I exclaimed worriedly. The "purrrring" sound of the Toyota's engine now sounded like it was clearing a fur ball from its throat. The smoke and steam coming from engine area was a dead give away; "Houston. We have a problem!" The poor, sick Toyota coughed and spluttered its way to the other side of the bridge then gave up the ghost shortly there after in the middle of a small village. Time check; 8.00pm
When I say "village", I mean that in the most basic sense; ramshackled huts made of corrugated iron roofs supported by bits and pieces of various items, mostly wooden tree branches. No electricity here; at best, a dim kerosene lamp flickering in the gentle breeze. The occasional car would pass by having successfully completed the bridge crossing without engine trouble however, the passing traffic consisted mainly of bicycles with incessant bell ringing replacing the blaring horns of cars as in Dhaka. The place was in no way threatening or dangerous, just surreal. The words primitive and medieval come to mind. I think you will see the picture I am trying to paint.
"Go with the flow! Go with the flow!" I keep repeating to myself over and over.
The driver spent, what seemed like an eternity, peering into the engine compartment. He didn't speak English but the forlorn confused look on his face communicated the conclusion succinctly; The engine is dead and for sure, no service stations anywhere around here!
"Well, what do we do now?", I asked my colleague, Sharif. "Do we stay here all night? I don't suppose there is a ShangriLa Hotel just around the corner ? No? I will happily settle for a Hilton .... even an Ibis". This was the mid 1990s before mobile phones were commonplace like they are today. Neither of us had a mobile phone and even if we did, it wouldn't have worked here in this primitive village, yet to be blessed with that wonder of modern society we take so much for granted but now can't survive without .... electricity!
After some moments of uncomfortable silence, Sharif announced; "I will go and search for a mechanic to fix our engine. Well soon be on our way!" So off he set, quickly disappearing into the darkness. Flickering kerosene lamps, ringing of bicycle bells, broken down Toyota, me dressed in a business suit.... surreal!
Time check: 9.30pm
Fearing this could take a bit of time and feeling a little weary by now, I retired to the Toyota minivan to relax and "chill out", eventually falling into a light sleep, but with one eye open.
Time check: 01:00am (Yes. 01.00am)
"I'm back", Sharif's excited voice called out, waking me from my slumber, just as I was dreaming of laying on a white sandy beach on a lush tropical island, Pina Colada in hand, turquoise water stretching to the horizon. I dragged myself out of the Toyota minivan to find three people standing in front of me. It was very dark so difficult to make them out in the dim interior light streaming from the Toyota. One was obviously Sharif but who are these other two characters? I could only make out that they appeared to be two young local males.
"Unfortunately, I wasn't able to find a Mechanic", Sharif announced, "however", he added, looking very pleased with himself, a bit like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in a Wonderland, "I have managed to find a replacement car, with two drivers, to take us the rest of the way to Pabna". Somewhat taken aback by this revelation I pulled Sharif to one side and whispered, (which, by the way, was totally unnecessary, as they didn't speak English); "are you sure about this Sharif? These two guys look a little suspicious to me". Sensing my trepidation, Sharif replied, "Relax! I have checked with the local police. These two "gentlemen" are trustworthy. The policeman know them well", he added. Well that is certainly comforting, I wonder how much they had to pay the police to say that? In any case, where I come from, being known to the police is not a good thing!
Reluctantly, I retrieved my bag from our Toyota minivan and followed Sharif and the two "gentleman" to our replacement hire car, parked 20 metres away. It was too dark to make out what type of car it was. Without a doubt, it won't be a Mercedes or BMW, I thought to myself. Probably a Toyota, the most popular car in Bangladesh, or perhaps a nice Nissan or the latest model Mazda 6 (I live in hope!) From a few metres away, by the light of the silvery moon, I could make out the shape of a small car. An older model Toyota and I do mean older model. Back home in Singapore or Australia this car would have been condemned to the scrap heap long ago.
Time check: 01.30am
With no other viable option available, we piled into the car, just enough room for Sharif and I plus our small bags in the back seat. The driver and co-driver in the front. The driver and co-driver were very silent, never speaking a word which, only heightened my suspicion about these two "trustworthy" characters.
The driver turned the key and the small engine struggled to life. No sooner had the engine started, pungent suffocating exhaust fumes filled the car through rust holes in the floor. We couldn't help but cough violently. A gas chamber on wheels! We wound down the windows to blow away the fumes and provide us with some fresh breathable air.
We proceeded along the road at a steady pace; top speed, a blistering 60 km/hr, downhill with a tailwind
Time check: 03.10am
We were travelling along quite smoothly, a rather cool wind blowing through the four open windows, thankfully, expelling the noxious exhaust fumes rising up from below. Over in the distance, off to the right, a storm was brewing. Frequent lightning flashes lighting up the distant sky on the horizon. I'm so glad we aren't way over there I thought to myself, breathing a heavy sigh of relief.
Strange how the lightning intensifies so brightly as it moves directly towards you! Within 30 minutes the full force of the raging storm was upon us; blinding lighting flashes, deafening thunder, gale force wind and driving rain. The driver activated the windscreen wipers and one wiper blade, on the passengers side, sprang to life, making a blood curdling "screeeeecccchhhing" sound as the metal blade dragged across the glass. I guess the rubber strip disappeared long ago, together with the wiper from the driver's side. It was impossible to see the road ahead so no choice but to pull over to the side of the road and wait out the storm. Time check: 03.45am.
The missing wiper blade was not the only problem to deal with. I mentioned how we wound up the windows due to the torrential rain. Well, three out of four isn't bad! The driver's window remained down. I guess he was preoccupied trying to focus on the road ahead, squinting to see through the water on the windscreen directly in front of him where the wiper blade should have been doing its job. As I was seated directly behind the driver I took the full force of the torrential rain, as it streamed in through the drivers's open window. Instinctively, I raised my bag in front of my face to block the rain whilst simultaneously calling out to Sharif to "please instruct the driver to wind up his window", lest I become the first human to drown whilst sitting in a car by the side of the road; no rivers, lakes or other waterways within a cooee! (that's Australian slang for "not close by"). Sharif (he was being drowned also) immediately called out to the driver in Bangla, the language of Bangladesh. The driver barked back, also in Bangla, but still the window did not move. "What did he say?", I called to Sharif angrily; "why is he not winding up the window?" Sharif replied " he said there is no glass in the window"!
I was dumbfounded, lost for words! How do you respond to that? No choice but to take a thorough soaking. Go with the flow! This time it was easy. The water was flowing freely!
The storm finally passed over after about 40 minutes. Time to get going again and cover the remaining 30km to our final destination.
I certainly didn't require a shower when we arrived at Pabna at 4.30am but I had one anyway as well as two cups of lovely sweet warm tea.
That journey, which should have taken 6 hours, took exactly 12 hours. So much for that bridge cutting the journey time by half! Maybe next time I'll take the Ferry.
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