Date: 06 Feb 2011
Location: Hotel Victory, Dhaka
The plan for today was impromptu. The initial plan was to go back to Dhaka and spend two more days there, doing a day trip out to the Sonargon on day 5. But as usual, the travel lust in me sets in, and the daft adventurer in me decides on an elaborate plan to hit northwards towards Rajshahi by train, then taking a local bus from there to Bogra. And going out to Mahasthangarh, the oldest city in Bangladesh, ruins built in the 3rd century, before returning to spend the night in Bogra. On day 5, I would wake up at dawn and make my way by bus to Paharpur, the launch point to Sompuri Vihara, the 3rd and final UNESCO site here in Bangladesh. Then I would rush back to Bogra by lunch and take the 6 hour bus ride into Dhaka, ending a 5 day blitz through Bangladesh with a flurry of a finale.
But as usual, the best laid plains go awry. As i am writing this at the end of Day 4, I sit in a a hotel room in Dhaka, holed up and awaiting tomorrow’s hartal. Hartal? What the heck is a hartal you say?! Ok, to explain further how I ended up here, we need to go back to the start of today.
The day started off reasonably uneventful. Early morning at 530am, I left my lodging and walked towards the train station, since there were no rickshaws out and about this early in the morning. The Khulna train station was crowded, and the Intercity train was parked by the platform, ready to set off around 7. Other than a smart-ass local who leeched a second cup of tea off me when I ordered mine, yes, somehow everywhere I go there’s also these kinds of over-zealous idiots who tries to make friends with some hidden motive, it was a quiet morning.
At the platform, I met Halim Nazrul, who works in the pharmaceutical industry. Everyone here who speaks decent English, is a degree holder from one of the many universities in the country. Most I spoke to even had MBAs. But here, in a country of more than 150 million people with the highest population density in the world (excluding tiny city states like Singapore of course) and where poverty is widespread, a good education does not necessarily lead to a good job and high pay. Heck, even Karim, the Bangla cleaning guy in my office, has a general degree, yet he moved to Singapore to slog for a few years, earning much more than he would in the same time back home.
Ok back to Halim, I try to impress him with my 3 days worth of Bengali by pointing out the Bangla numbers printed above the carriages, and asking him which one corresponds to my ticket number. We speak, and he genuinely was excited at meeting a foreigner from Singapore, and a tourist at that. We board the train, and head towards my carriage. I find that instead of the private cabins on first class, where you have 4 to a cabin, my ticket leads me to sulob class, which is still in the 1st class carriage, but comprise two long cushioned benches facing each other. There was one other old guy whose name i did not catch, in the chair opposite me, and the next two hours were spent talking to Halim and the old guy. Well, more Halim because the old guy doesn’t speak much English and Halim had to act as translator whenever the former asked me anything. Actually, I was quite thankful for the old guy, for he provided a respite when I needed a break. Earnest Halim would leave me alone for a while and talk to old guy instead.
The train ride was recommended by those exchange students at Grameen Bank i met yesterday, which influenced my decision to go north. By now, I had taken an impressive variety of tranport on this trip. There’s the plane into Dhaka, the rickshaws, the CNG tuk-tuks, the shared tempos, cabs, a Rocket steamer, the Sundarbans boat, public buses, this inter-city train, and later on i would top up my list with the infinitely more comfortable bus coaches.
The intercity train stops at each town and city along the way, hence its name. At each stop, vendors would walk up and down selling their wares through the train windows. Halim and the old guy alighted two hours into the journey, leaving me with my posse of fans and hangers-on who had crowded around my seating area, eager to find out more about the foreigner. I am honoured from all the attention given, and continued to talk with them, but after a while, it can be exasperating trying to converse with my barely there Bangla and their barely there English, especially when all I wanted to do was take a nap. I shifted to the window seat and promptly fell asleep leaning against the window, only waking up when I reached Rajshahi, the last station.
Rajshahi is a university town, the Rajshahi university is one of the major landmarks in the city, and young university students flock the streets around campus. I did not spend any time there, preferring instead to get on the Bogra bus immediately. It was 1pm. I passed by the university though, and outside was a famous memorial statue commemorating the independence of 1971, from Pakistan. Here’s an article i picked out from the local tabloid summarising the painful history of the country.
Another interesting fact is that 21st february is International Mother Language Day, which celebrates the mother tongues of each country. This day originated in Bangladesh where, in the struggle for independence, some protesters were killed when they refused to adopt Urdu as per Pakistan as the national language, instead keeping to Bangla. This day was later incorporated into the International Mother Language day we know today.
Hmmm. Conversation with Halim back on the train also led to languages, specifically, why despite both Singapore and Bangladesh being former British colonies, the usage of English is Singapore was so widespread but in Bangladesh, only a smattering of people spoke English fluently. Welll, according to Halim, the reason is because during the period of British rule, the Muslims in Bangladesh refused to learn or practise English, while the Hindus were the only ones who picked up the language.
Going on, the two hour Bogra bus actually took three hours. Packed, as usual I was shepherded to the front of the bus, where some university student types can be found, and invited to sit with a certain M.A.Matin, who from the sound of his name, as well as his features, would be a Hindu. Mr Matin is a teacher, and he is going back to Bogra carrying a brand new desktop bought in Rajshahi, tucked tightly on the floor between his legs, for his daughter. He is a pretty quiet man, (and for that I am thankful), but we do talk, and he shows me some black and white stills that he has just printed and bringing back to his school for an exhibition. The said photos show very disturbing shots of the previously mentioned 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War: bodies on the ground, gaunt corpses, soldiers with weapons, and the like.
It was on further conversation with Matin, however, that made me realise that I won’t be able to complete my itinerary. Apparently, Feb 7, tomorrow is the day of a country-wide hartal, or strike. Organised by the opposition party BNP, it is to protest against the rising food prices, and the government plans to build a brand new airport near Dhaka. During this strike, he said, protesters would demonstrate peacefully in various cities and hotspots around Bangladesh (like universities!!). How he knew this? Apparently, hartals such as these were common, the last one being back in November. Such hartals cripple the country and economy, whether they actually achieved their purpose is questionable.
During one of these hartals, all shops will be closed, and all transport on the street will stop. It would probably be the only time when Dhaka’s streets will be free of the daily jam, i thought to myself. Any cars or buses found on the street run the risk of getting stoned, vandalised and maybe even set alight by demonstrators. The rickshaws would obviously be the exception, for no one really bothers with them. What a fix to find myself in, i mean, what are the odds of me hitting a strike day during a 5 day visit (well, yeah, these strikes ARE commonplace here, but still!).
I looked in my local papers, and with a sigh, saw an article which confirmed what Matin said. There was no way I would be able to find a public bus into Dhaka tomorrow. It left me no choice, I will have to forego all other plans, and from Bogra, take the next bus out to Dhaka. If only they postponed the hartal by a day or something, then I could complete all the sights as planned. Well, time to adapt as necessary.It was 430pm, and the bus ride is 6 hours. I booked the 6pm coach, from the many coach companies that ply the Bogra-Dhaka route. Took my first proper meal for the day (i love the salt, it is the main condiment here, and i read somewhere they add something into the salt to make it very tasty, something like Ajinomoto or MSG), and proceeded to wait for coach to set off.
Actually, there is a bit of schadenfreude here, I am silently anticipating how the strike would turn out tomorrow. Reaching Dhaka at around 1am, I paid an exorbitant amount for a CNG to take me to Hotel Victory, located in the heart of Dhaka, Motijheel. Since I was going to be stuck the entire day in the hotel tomorrow, I decided to dispense with the 2 dollar hotels of the past few days, and splurge on a 30-40 USD room with aircon, cable tv, comfy beds and an internet connection. It was dark as I walked around the corner where the CNG dropped me off, to Hotel Victory. Little did I know that the nondescript building beside Hotel Victory was actually the main office and center of operations for BNP, the opposition party which instigated tomorrow’s hartal.
Next entry: 7th Feb, hartal in Dhaka!