Notes from Bangladesh
January 2012 (Bundi, India)
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
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
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
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