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The story of how I saved money, quit my job, sold my possessions, and set off to endlessly travel by bike around the world. My Plan

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DownTheRoad.org RoadNews Newsletter:
Notes from Bangladesh

January 2012 (Bundi, India)


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Greetings again from the road! Although Iím now well into the next leg of my journey in Rajasthan, India, this newsletter tells the story of my bike tour through Bangladesh with my cycling partner Gretchen. Bangladesh is a fascinating country, beautiful for cycling, and far off the regular tourist radar.

  

We dropped into the northwestern corner of Bangladesh at the end of October, into a flat land of rice paddies and bicycles and people everywhere. I know that bicycles can carry just about anything a gasoline vehicle can, but itís still amazing to see the idea in practice. We saw cargo bikes carrying long loads of cut bamboo, woven baskets of ducks and chickens, towering heaps of hay or banana bunches. Bicycle rickshaws have become an art form here. Every town has a street full of bicycle shops full of parts and mechanics.

 

I have a lot of respect for the guys here who make their daily living with a bicycle. We rode alongside hundreds of other cyclists everyday and most of them were pulling heavier loads than mine. The land in Bangladesh is almost completely flat, making it perfect for cycling. But even without hills, we had plenty of challenges. Bangladesh sees few visitors so there isnít much infrastructure for tourists. Also, itís an extremely crowded country. With roughly half the population of the United States crammed into an area the size of Ohio, itís no surprise that we were surrounded by large staring crowds of curious locals wherever we went. As Bangladeshi women dress very conservatively and largely stay in the background in this strict Muslim culture, Gretchen especially attracted many eyes, slightly uncomfortable at times.

  

Language was one of our main obstacles. Weíd come to take for granted the ease with which Indians speak English. Not the case in Bangladesh. There was no such thing as a street sign in English script. Still, people in Bangladesh are amazingly kind and helpful. On the many occasions when we were lost, all we had to do was pause at a corner. In the crowds that quickly closed in, one or two more educated people, eager to communicate and help us out, would materialize. Often our rescuers would guide us to our destinations and stick around to help us negotiate a fair price. From our first day to our last, nearly everyday we had people offering to help us find hotels, order at restaurants or get on correct train.

Navigation by map alone was tricky business in Bangladesh, so we were lucky to get so much help. Especially during our attempts at riding off the main highways, we frequently found ourselves on roads that bore no relation to the lines on the map. We pieced together a zig zag route across the northern half of Bangladesh to the tea plantations of Srimongal, the only hills of our trip. From there we loaded the bikes on a train to Chittagong and then cycled south to the beach at Coxís Bazar. After a small break, we took a bus back to Dhaka to meet Muntasir Mamun, a local cyclist who hosts many touring bikers passing through his country. Waiting for me at his house: a package sent by my parents in Indiana. Replacements for all the gear Iíd lost along road in the last few months. After the stolen bag in Sikkim and various breakdowns, it was a huge relief to replace my most vital equipment and tools.

Although we spent an unhappy chunk of our last couple weeks in the country dealing with frustrating bureaucracy, (Always get an India visa in your home country whenever possible!) Muntasir and his family looked after us like royalty. We met an exciting group of outdoor adventure enthusiasts and social businessmen. When we finally picked up Gretchenís new Indian visa, we only had a short time left on our Bangladeshi visas. On the day we cycled out of Dhaka, a cold snap fell over Bangladesh and parts of India. In the much chillier than normal temperatures, locals bundled up in blankets and scarves and we pulled out our cold weather gear from the bottom of our bags for the first time in months.

 

We took a shivery ferry ride one morning across the Ganges River and back for a final pass through the Bangladeshi fields and farmlands. The flat countryside here is beautiful riding and I love interacting with local bike riders on their rickshaws and cargo bikes. But our visas were running out and we had to cycle hard for a few days. As a Christmas treat, we stayed at a hotel with hot water and the next day crossed the Indian border. Although we were a few days passed our expiration date, the passport officer forgot to add up the exact number of days when he somehow became convinced that my wife was pregnant. I donít know how he got the idea that I was married or anyone was pregnant, but in the excitement of congratulating me, he neglected to fine us for overstaying.

After a few days of navigating the surrounding sprawl, we peddled into the heart of Kolkata. Third timeís a charm. This time around we found much to enjoy in this mega-city as we celebrated the New Year with an international crowd of backpackers and travelers at a rooftop party. Although I rang in 2011 with a similar crowd in Pokhara, Nepal, the circumstances couldnít have been more different. As anyone whoís gone through divorce can attest, things look a lot better after a year to recover.

We wanted to begin the next leg of our tour from Jaipur in Western India. Rather than cycling for two months through the fattest chunk of India, we decided to take a 24-hour train ride across the country. Checking the bikes and packs on the baggage car involved having our possessions sewn up in burlap and tarps and hoisted around with hand-held hooks. A bout of food poisoning did nothing to improve the ride, as vomiting and diarrhea are even less fun on a long train ride. But soon enough it was all over. Iím excited about this ride through the Rajasthan desert. We will head southwest to the westernmost Indian state of Gujarat to the Arabian Sea Coast, then circle back northeast towards the Himalayas and Nepal. Itís not easy to plan a bicycle tour in India with the monsoon rains, winter and summer weather, and visa time restrictions to take into consideration. I think Iíve got a trip worked out that wonít require any planes, buses or train travel for a good long time.

For anyone considering a trip to Bangladesh, whether by bike or other transport, know that it is harder traveling than India and Nepal, but still a rewarding place to visit. Itís an interesting glimpse into Muslim culture. Bangladesh is probably the poorest country Iíve ever visited. Itís one thing to hear in the news that there are people in the world who live US$1 a day, quite another thing to see it in real life. Although sometimes heartbreaking, it was an eye-opening experience for us. Iíve posted Gretchenís day by day journal with photos here if youíre interested in a much more detailed description. Once again, I thank all my readers for your continued interest in my travels. Please visit www.DownTheRoad.org and use the links to support travels and help keep me on the road.


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