09 February 2008

Jolly Bengali

I've found that international borders, no matter how easy to cross a map would lead you to believe, are never so. Even if neighboring countries share a common culture, or were once the same country, the border seems to send people scurrying to the heartland, like blood in a cold body. Neighboring countries, however much they have in common, are still palpably different, and I, at least, always feel that difference hard upon crossing, as much as I have always felt a certain unease when traveling just from New Jersey to New York, where the people are crazy. When you try to push through them, borders push back at you. They resist, not like a hard wall, but rather like a spring (threatening to send you rocketing back the way you came) or a sponge (soaking up your time). For example: the border at Changrabandha between India and Bangladesh. This is a crossing point between the most densely populated region of the second most populous country on Earth and the most densely populated country on Earth, period. But there isn't even a direct bus to the border (I had to take a rickshaw partway on both sides), and at the border, there is hardly anything going on, hardly any international traffic. Obviously, this crossing I chose is not a major one, but I'm not complaining. The immigration formalities themselves, a bit absurdly protracted on the Indian side, were relatively swift, as I was apparently one of the only people going to Bangladesh that day. But there is still so much waiting and so many transportation connections to make. From Darjeeling to Rangpur, a mere hundred or so kilometers on the map, it took me over 12 hours to traverse--not uncomfortably, mind you: the lowland breezes were warm and gentle, a welcome relief from the mountain chill. I took nearly ever conceivable form of transportation to make the journey: jeep, bus, rickshaw, tuk-tuk. As soon as I crossed over, Bangladeshis ran up to greet me. Most people in developing countries have a habit of addressing you as "friend," but these guys (and only guys) called me "brother"; isn't that nice? Unfortunately, that's as far as it may go with most people. Nobody seems to speak English here, and I am very disappointed with the British Raj on that account. On the other hand, the words "food" and "breakfast" or frantic gestures indicating the same are understood well enough, and since the food, however delicious, lacks variety, it'll do. On the third hand, this is a Muslim country, so beer isn't on sale anywhere, except in clandestine corners I haven't yet located.

So far, I quite like Bangladesh. The countryside is lovely, the transportation system works efficiently (very important to me), the people are outstandingly generous, the hotels are cheap, and the cheap hotels are comfortable. There are no tourists or even tourist facilities (hence no touts or ripping-off), either, which makes it the kind of travel adventure I haven't enjoyed since the days of my Egyptian military convoys. The people here are genuinely shocked to see me wherever I go, which also means they stare a lot, but that's OK: I'm used to that, being so good-looking and all (rim shot). Today, I reached Bogra, a regional capital. I can't say there's much going on here, but 90% of the street traffic is colorful rickshaws. There are surprisingly few automobiles, so the air is full, not of the noxious sound of honking, revving motor vehicles, but of the gentle tinkling of bicycle bells. To spice things up, I did go on a few rusty amusement park rides for 10 cents each, built on the grounds of a former palace, but that's as much as I'll be risking my life in this country until I visit the tiger-infested Sundarbans (just kidding: the intercity buses, river ferries, and paddle steamships are way more likely to kill me). Tomorrow, the plan is to visit some nearbyish ruins (the best in the country: I can't resist) and then make my way to the maelstrom of Dhaka. I tried to find a couchsurfing gig there, but no go so far. Hopefully, I'll have better luck in Kolkata. These $2-5 hotel rooms are really draining away my wealth.

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