Today we sit with the great! deal with officialdom, pay through the nose and race with a rickshaw.
Oh, and we meet a man with a gun…
The flight to Doha is full but we’re sitting together and the Pilgrim’s lack of weight coupled with my slightly exaggerated form complement each other and the bonus is that I’m in the aisle seat. We settle down to the flight having had a bit of a testing time first with the Qantas check-in lady then their customer relations people.
As Doha is transient, we’re allowed into the duty-free halls with no official intervention. The layover is two hours but we’re running a little bit late so we stretch our legs and make our way to ‘Camdon Market’ for a proper coffee. It’s a good coffee but at £17 for two coffees and a bottle of water the term, “Even Dick Turpin wore a mask”, would be entirely appropriate.
The second leg of the flight is boarding and there are no issues; however, this time we’re not together so the compensatory effect of my girth and the Pilgrim’s lack of girth doesn’t apply. It turns out that I’m in the middle of two gentlemen who are rather more rotund than me. I fall into the normal range of BMI at a little over fourteen stone and 6 ft 2 inch tall but these two are clinically obese, large and tall and the other a small but extremely wide around the hips. I have no problems with fat folks, they’re entitled to be whatever they want to be and I’ll defend them on that; however, I do object to buying/renting a seat and ending up with a third of it. The ‘plane is full; however, so short of creating an international incident, there’s not a lot to do. The big guy on my right is apologetic but I reassure him he’s not to blame and between the pair of us make the best of a bad deal both in terms of standing up (not altogether a bad thing when you’ve spent over ten hours travelling) and turning sideways to compensate. William’s had a bit of a tough time and tells me about his sister-in-law who’s just had a stroke. The five hours pass quickly and include a half-hour sleep which works wonders for the trial of getting an ‘on-demand’ visa.
On arrival at Dhaka, I’m lucky to escape the aeroplane quickly and arrive at the queue to obtain the visa with only one person in front of me. The Pilgrim is further down the ‘plane and will take another ten minutes but I’ll then have the experience and be able to advise – this turns out to be a good decision for only one reason. If you join a huge queue to obtain this stamp and you haven’t paid (and there are no signs to tell you to pay) then you will be sent away to a little booth where you part with $51 and they give you a receipt. You’ve then got to go back and rejoin the queue and on a bad day when several flights have arrived at around the same time then those queues can be upwards of two or three hours long. You do the maths!
I’d already been advised of this little hiccup in the proceedings so am able to advise people that stand behind me in ignorant innocence and have my receipt. There is still some doubt regarding our transit documents that the Qatar lady was worried about back in Manchester.
I approach the ‘Special Branch Immigration Policeman’ and within seconds appreciate that he’s been having a bad day. He’s rude and unpleasant, rejects the documents that were given to me in the aeroplane and were duly filled in with all passport details, hotel where we’re to stay and onward flight. You can’t have a temporary visa to enter Bangladesh without a flight out so these documents are critical. Having thrown a new form at me and gestured to go away he goes back to chatting to his colleague before abusing the next traveller in the same way. It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone.
I go and sit with three other travellers around an old desk and just about to fill in the form when my ‘Special Branch Immigration Policeman’ left his post to order me off the seat that I’d taken because it was his. I immediately complied naïvely thinking he was about to help someone across the desk but no, he goes back to his cubicle and starts abusing another hopeful visa applicant. He just didn’t want me to sit on his seat!
Surreptitious photograph of the desk!
I fill in the form and rejoin the queue at a different desk and the Pilgrim reappears. After responding to the advice that I could now give she joins me and we are processed by a wonderful helpful official who even jokes at the Pilgrim and refers to her as “The Doctor”.
My faith in Bangladeshi folks restored, we head for the taxis.
Dhaka is a city that is on the move. Anything with wheels is vying for its place on the road with honking horns but no animosity. The use of the horn here is rarely accompanied by gestures rude or otherwise. It’s more to do with announcing, ‘I am here’ as opposed to, ‘Get out of my way’; however, this rule is completely ignored when it comes to traffic lights or police (or of officials of any kind) then the gloves are off and it becomes an unconsummated challenge. They’re obedient in terms of where the officer is pointing the stick; ie. he (it’s usually a he) will walk into the tsunami of traffic like a **charmed** deity and the various wagons, tuktuks, trishaws, rikshaws the odd car, horse and cart, pony pulling a fabulously ornate carriage and numerous bikes, will stop exactly where he points with his stick. There’s a pause, then they produce a cacophony of sound to urge him to return priority to them urgently. Traffic lights are at best advisory, but then I’m being generous, they’re actually ignored.
They produce this Phil Spectre ‘Wall of Sound’ effect whilst watching him without blinking. They’re waiting for the sign that they can return to the race, it is but rarely more than 20 or 30 miles per hour and usually walking pace or slower. They duck, dive and weave always with the hand on the horn, ‘I’m here’, they shout and the response, well the response is generally, ‘Yeah, OK, but I don’t give a shit!’
The more environmentally conscious tuktuks have little stickers that proclaim they run on natural gas and whilst all of the traffic weaves about through the metallic torrent the tuktuks and bicycle- rickshaws are the best. They can edge their way into the smallest gap. When I was a plant-fitter we used feeler-gauges down to thousandths of an inch and I wouldn’t be able to fit one between these vehicles when in full flow.
Like many of the former colonies they’ve retained the convention of driving on the left and the rules of the road; however, those rules were related to animal-drawn vehicles and certainly not appropriate now. They’re ignored anyway so I suppose all of the above is rhetorical.
When we hire the taxi we’re told the journey to our hotel will be about four hours if the traffic is ‘busy’ and about 25 minutes if it is a ‘good run’. Today, with the huge flow of traffic, stopping and starting but mostly stopping, weaving and manoeuvring and then racing to the next jam is, believe it or not, a good day and we arrive at our hotel within an hour. It’s as we approach that we get our first indication of the way the Bangladesh people operate i.e. to not finish what they set out to do is something of a failure but we aren’t to know this properly until tomorrow.
We’re at a complete standstill in the traffic and the hotel is about 50 yards away on our side of the road and we’ve been stationary for about 5 minutes. We’ve already paid the agreed fee and have a hundred taka (about a pound sterling) to give him as a tip so we ask, “Shall we get out here?” He looks surprised and disappointed and shakes his head. Another 5 minutes goes by and whilst we’re sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of the old taxi, it is still frustrating to be near, yet so far away, if you’ll pardon the cliche. “Are you sure, we’re happy to get out here”, and we proffer the 100 taka note, he shakes his head again. Just as this is happening the traffic starts to move, he switches on his left-hand indicator and begins the process of cutting across the six lanes of traffic that are using the three lanes of the dual carriageway and we can’t see this manoeuvre coming off.
First, a rickshaw is pushed (not physically but definitely pushed) to an angle to let us past, this cascades to an emergency stop of a huge waggon clearing at least two of the rows of traffic for us to swerve across unimpeded, now there are only three to go. There are three tuktuks taking up one lane followed by another taxi who gives way without an issue but then we are confronted by a bus with a broken windscreen, no grill or bumper-bars and battered down both sides from countless encounters with other vehicles and road signs, it looks like the other buses and, without exception they all look like they’ve been bought second-hand from a dealer in Beirut, this is not going to be a happy ending. The driver of the bus looks calm but has his hand on the horn and doesn’t look like he has any intention of giving up his lane. One of the passengers who is hanging out of the open door, I’ll rephrase that, he is hanging out of where the door would have been had there been one, anyway, the passenger is gesticulating that we should get out of the way. I flinch and brace myself but our skilled and daring taxi driver backs off from this part of the parking ritual and remains in his lane whilst the bus edges by, horn still blaring. Immediately after the rear of the bus clears, our driver is back to his simultaneous indicator-move routine and edged in front of two rickshaws and a tuktuk who are also trying to stop at the hotel. We get there first and slide gently to a standstill exactly outside the hotel as if this had been a gentle Sunday run-out back home.
He turns and smiles, “Are you happy?”, he says.
“Err, yes.”, We both respond.
Our driver, ever courteous, opens the rear door for the Pilgrim and offers his arm, the Bangladesh are ever the gentleman.
My side is opened by a man in uniform he’s smiling – but he does have a gun!
I’m a little surprised but soon placated by the fact that the gun is pointing down and he is one of the security people who stand outside some of the hotels as a kind of status symbol that’s meant to reassure the clients. He is also smiling, Bangladesh folk smile a lot and their manners are impeccable.
After the minor shock of the first encounter, we’re shown into reception and as we pass the other security people they all come to attention and salute. In reception, our bags go through an x-ray machine but all of this is more for ‘show’. This is confirmed when we see lights flash and hear warning buzzers sound, all of these are ignored and we’re welcomed at reception with bows and wide smiles
More to come…
Enjoy the snaps…G..x
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