Bangladesh, a small country, a poor country, a muslim country. Almost surrounded by mighty India, sharing just a few kilometer border with Myanmar; in the south access to the Bay of Bengal. Why is such a country interesting for a cyclist like me? The simple answer: Because crossing Bangladesh is the shortest route to the northeast states of India.
Formerly East Pakistan, Bangladesh became a sovereign nation in 1971. Today about 164 million people are living there, 76% of them from less than 2 dollar per day, says the statistic.
More facts about Bangladesh here and here.
By the international media Bangladesh is known for getting hit by cyclones and heavy monsoon rainfalls every year. From time to time the latest corruption scandal in the government is reported, or a new story uncovers the inhuman working conditions in the ready-made garment industry. About 4 million people, mostly women, working in one of the thousand garment factories; often for less than 50 dollar a month. They are producing cloth for western brands, exporting them to the European and American market.
When I was in Bangladesh, in Dhaka a garment factory collapsed, due to systematical violation of construction and safety rules. More than 1000 workers got killed. But these stories you can read in the newspapers, it shouldn´t be an issue here.
Bangladesh is not a main tourist destination
15 days I got at the “Deputy High Commission of Bangladesh” in Kolkata. Though it is a small country, it stressed me after the almost infinite amount of time I had in India. (Ok, 6 months is not so much for a huge country like India, but still a long time compared to the duration of tourist visa in other countries.)
Bangladesh is not a main tourist destination, though it has the potential for one and there are quite some things to see. First of all the Sunderbans, the world´s largest mangrove forest. Or Cox´s Bazar, 120 km of uninterrupted sand beach. And maybe at last Dhaka, the country´s capital with its 14 million inhabitants, center of a flowering literature and art scene.
I couldn´t decide where to go. Worried about my small amount of time I decided for a route almost directly to Agartala, which lies in the Indian state of Tripura. And, as in other places before, I discovered that the true treasures, the true sensation of a country, are the people.
“Brother, how are you?”
Bangladeshis are helpful, friendly – and of course curious people. What I already experienced in rural India, people surrounding me and my bicycle everywhere I stopped, continued in Bangladesh, but it was different. People didn´t just stared at me, they tried to communicate.
“Brother, how are you?” from the young child to the old man, everyone in Bangladesh seems to know at least this English sentences. First it is strange to get called “brother” by an unknown person, but I like it more than “Sir”, or “Mister”. It is direct, it shows me we are all on the same level, all humans, and the people mean it like that. They treat you like a brother.
In one village someone gave me a mobile to press it on my ear, “Here, it´s for you”. I heard a voice saying in german: “Hallo, wie gehts? Du bist deutsch? Dies ist mein Dorf, komm bitte in mein Haus.” (Hello, how are you? You are german? This is my village, please come to my house.)
I had a good evening with a Bangladeshi, who lived more than 20 years in Germany and the hospitality reminded me much at that what I experienced in countries like Iran and Pakistan.
Navigation was difficult
There is not so much traffic on the roads; most of the people don´t possess a motorbike, not to mention a car. So most of the traffic consisted of trucks, tattered old buses, and lots of these three wheeled cycle rickshaws, which are used to transport nearly everything.
Navigation was difficult. I didn´t managed to buy a map of Bangladesh, and with not very precise Google maps printouts and my compass I made my way east. Asking for directions for the next town is similar to India: Three questions, three different answers, and the people never say “No” when they don´t know. Surprisingly everyone could tell me the exactly direction and distance to Dhaka, which I wanted to avoid; big and crowded cities like that can be a nightmare for cyclists.
“India No. Not for You.”
One story I want to share with you is from my attempt to cross the frontier from Bangladesh back to India. It was already late afternoon when I reached the official frontier check post.
(Two hours ago I had been captured and send back by a friendly Bangladesh frontier force, while unknowingly trying to cross to India on an illegal way. I had just asked the local people for “India”, everyone had pointed in the same direction, and the road had gotten smaller and ended up in a muddy footpath winding into the forest. I had asked again, and people had still pointed on that path. From there it had begun to dawn on me, that´s not a legal way and just at that moment a group of uniformed and armed members of the Bangladeshi frontier force had appeared and told me with amusement: “India No. Not for you. Only locals without passport. You passport, you need stamp”)
So there I was at the right check post, facing an officer who told me that I have to pay 300 taka (about 3 euro) “governmental travel tax” before I was allowed to leave the country. I didn´t know that, had spent all my money before and had to cross the border on the same day. A friend was waiting for me on the other side. I discussed with the officer, I told him I have no money, haven´t heard about a tax like that before, but he was serious and made clear to me, he wouldn´t let me pass before I had paid the travel tax.
This was not about a bribe
It´s hard to solve a problem with an official, when you don´t have money in your pocket. But anyway, this was not about a bribe, because the normal way was, to go to a bank, pay in the travel tax and show the receipt at the border.
For me that was not an option. Cycling back 20 km into last town, get money from a bank, pay money in, cycle back to the border – it wouldn´t be possible in time, the border was going to close in about one hour. I went out of the room and sat down before the building, didn´t know what to do now.
There were some truck drivers, some kids hanging around, and one man in an expensive looking but dirty suit asked me, what the problem is. I told him, I don´t have money to pay the 300 takas, and a few moments later the border official joined our conversation. More and more people were coming, curious what was going on. I had to answer one more time all the questions which are most important for the people. In Bangladesh in the following order:
How are you brother?
Where are you from?
Where are you going?
Are you alone?
Are you married?
Where are your friends?
Are you Muslim?
How many brothers and sisters?
How is Bangladesh?
Then the unbelievable happened: The guy in the suit got 100 Takas out of his wallet, all the kids started to search their pockets for crumpled 10 Taka notes, and the truck drivers were also collecting money. Soon 300 Takas had been collected, squeezed into my hands.
People in one of the poorest country in the world had collected money for a guy from one of the richest countries in the world to help him to cross the border. Without expectations, without conditions, just out of pure and genuine affection and kindliness.
“Have a nice journey, brother”, I heard the voice of the border official behind me, while I was pushing my bicycle the last meters to India, still puzzled by what just happened.
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