Today we learn that a bus journey can be enjoyable, people continue to be kind and covering 160km (100 miles) in a bus is not stressful if you avoid looking out of the front window as it is overtaking.
The Greenline Bus Office is a about 100 yards from the front of the hotel but crossing two, three-lane carriageways is a challenge especially when it’s not just a case of looking at the direction of travel. You could have all concentration fixed on traffic from your right as that’s the direction of flow when two rickshaws, a tuktuk and the odd bus will hit you from the other direction purely on the premise that they felt like it. We had heard of someone hiring a rickshaw to take them to the other side of the road as it was safer and at 9 pence, probably good value for money.
We do some ducking and diving looking both ways. We wriggle through gaps that are a mistake, Bangladesh folks don’t leave gaps, they move forward until they touch and this can be an issue for ankles and shins if you let your concentration slip.
As we enter the Greenline office there are pictures of state-of-the-art coaches on every wall; however, the one outside looks elderly and a little tired. I remember when I was young, one of the local bus companies would use Irish number plates so you couldn’t tell how old the coach was. I always felt it a bit fraudulent and we used to talk about boycotting it in the pub but I’m not sure whether it happened as we’d progressed to motorbikes, cars and thumb.
We book two seats on the Chittagong to Cox’s Bazar flyer, I added the last word in a fit of optimism, and we’re told to present ourselves at the terminus a little further along the street, on Friday morning. The clerk then fills in four encyclopaedias of paperwork, adds us to the computer, gives us a receipt and repeats where we are to present ourselves and at what time.
We skip forward a couple of days and we’re sitting in the waiting room adjacent to a large coach that, in fairness has seen better days but looks far better than the example we saw on Wednesday. It’s air-conditioned (and it works), the seats are set with plenty of space between them, I’m 6’ 2’’ (1.88m) and can stretch out nicely. It’s well sprung and reasonably quiet, who cares if the paint is a little faded everything else is fine.
There are several checks regarding luggage and cross-checks to ensure it has an owner, it’s very airline’ish. Once complete the door closes, the AC steps up a notch and we’re off.
The first few streets are the Chittagong suburbs and vary in interest then comes the developments. There are several new roads under construction and as this happens they clear a route using diggers and graders but there is no hard-core or concession to heavy traffic. The road is rubble, clay, soft soil, broken flags and sometimes whole bricks scattered across the carriageway cum track and it zigs and zags randomly as the new-road-builders alter it in a whim to suit their needs. We follow it at one or two miles per hour and I’m glad we have the space to be pulled every which way as the bus drops into potholes, climbs out and merely rocks a little as the excellent suspension takes the major share of what would have been an unacceptable jolt. It this had been a regular journey this would have been tedious and waring but, for us, as a one-off, it is novel and interesting as the workmen use traditional and modern methods with a similar mix of plant, tools and equipment. There is no concession to safety as a man stands on a weight that’s being dropped two or three metres to drive piles into the clay. He seems to be the ‘sensor’ for the depth and material that the pile is being driven through many metres below. When it is deemed to be deep enough or if there is an obstruction and other techniques deemed necessary, the man calls out and holds a hand in the air, the response is always immediate and the pile-driving stops for dialogue to take place between the man on the pile (the sensor) and the man that estimates the distance that both man and weight have to drop to achieve the result, then, off they go again, the rhythmic report echoing off the buildings in the distance.
After half an hour of this and just as it begins to have the potential to be tedious it ends and we’re on a tarmac road. It’s contra-flow so there is no chance of a 120 km/hr dash to Cox’s… or is there?
There are rickshaws, tuktuks, wagons and all manner of wonderful vehicular devices, some derived from a tuktuk or a bicycle-rikshaw frame but, in terms of the latter, they’ve added an engine! It would struggle to get near the door of ‘Construction and Use’ regulations in Europe, in fact, it would struggle to get near the town in which the words ‘Construction and Use’ were first uttered but with a loud roar and a cloud of smoke it could transport a pallet of fruit, a house load of furniture, two goats, a cow, a deep litter of laying hens and the extended family of 16 who would sit in, on or under much of the aforementioned, the lucky ones being those that are under the rest of the goods as they’re in the shade.
We have one of these ‘Worldly Goods’ vehicles in front of us now, it’s on our side of the road and approaching at speeds of 50 kph for us and 5 kph for them, a potential for a 55 kph massacre of these lovely people but the magic of Bangladeshi drivers happens yet again. They have an avionic approach to each other where there’s a law that states one should avoid the other by adopting a procedure…
“What’s the procedure?”, you ask.
Well I can’t tell you as it’s all done by ESP so our driver takes a line that leads us through a small gap in the middle of the road between a wagon, two rickshaws (side by side) and a motorbike and the other side of the gap is the family and ‘Worldly-Goods’ vehicles so we have ample space of about two and a half metres, the width of the bus is about two and a half metres so, in Bangladesh, what’s the problem?
We emerge the other side of the catastrophe and I take a hesitating look through the rear window. The two rickshaws are now Indian file, the motorbike is a distant dot and the ‘worldly-goods’ vehicle? Well, that’s plodding along leaving a black cloud of diesel smoke with all of its carriages still intact and the cow chewing cud in slow munching movements just like a cow does…
I resolve not to worry!
We pass through numerous villages and the bus slows to walking pace as we negotiate the mechanically propelled and human-propelled vehicles that live in harmony in this wonderful country. There are stalls and merchandise to be sold and bought here and the impression that I’m getting is that if you can’t get it in Bangladesh, it probably doesn’t exist.
Just over halfway through this priceless journey and we stop at a ‘transport cafe’. The difference between this and the ones in the UK is probably price and plastic. You can have a myriad of different meals here, they cook them fresh when you order them, the toilets are old but serviceable and clean and the staff are helpful beyond their role. All a Bangladeshi wants is for you to be happy and that is the mantra, “Are you happy?”, they’ll ask and any answer, not in the affirmative is a catastrophe that they must correct.
We’re here for 20 minutes and we take the opportunity for a short leg stretching amble around the car/coach park. A 4×4 with 5 policemen in it tries to turn in where I’m stood between two busses. I don’t immediately notice them, then I see someone look behind me and naturally turn, they’re waiting patiently for me to move, which I do, and rather than any scowls or irritation, they wave as they catch my eye and park up.
A little later, I’m waiting for the bus to open again when they return to their vehicle and one of them calls across, “Please enjoy our country”, then they re-enter the 4×4, smile, wave and drive off. I love these people.
We travel a little further and at about half-past-one, we pull into a kind of lay-by but it has other uses. It has a small pool and some steps down to it, there’s a pagoda with a kind of trough and some taps and finally, a covered area where I can see sandals and other shoes at the entrance. It’s a Muslim prayer area and we’ve stopped for Dhuhr, the mid-day prayers. The men and women separate to make preparations for their prayer ritual. It includes washing of feet etc and I walk to the front of the bus as I’m a little uncomfortable with being able to see what they do, although, I’m not sure that there are any rules written or un-written that forbids this, it just seems, for me, appropriate that I don’t watch.
It’s only three to five minutes for the prayers and, perhaps the same again for their ablutions pre-prayers but it’s also a welcome leg-stretching break for the rest of us and if I’m honest, the sanctity of the situation gives the rest of us, if we want it, time to think, so I think of Linda, and it’s nice.
The rest of the journey takes us through more villages and allows us to see locals washing clothes in large ponds and small snacks can be had off-street stalls for pennies. We occasionally see boys in the fields and I’m a bit uncomfortable with that when they should be at school but hopefully, things will change as Bangladesh become more prosperous.
We pass rice paddies, arable land and fruit fields with bananas and occasional other fruits that I don’t recognise but when eaten fresh, I’m sure are delicious. Eating healthy here seems to be the norm as everything is fresh and wholesome.
It’s obvious that we’re entering Cox’s Bazar and after only a few minutes of suburbs, we stop in what seems a very random location with numerous other buses, just by the side of the road.
I’ve done a fair amount of travelling without booking in advance when I did stints working abroad and made the odd excursion with the family. This particular trip has been a wonderful experience and I would recommend it to you. There’s a little bit more danger in terms of the reliance on Inshallah (God’s will) than you would have in the UK but, hey, that adds to the fun. What about the discomfort? Well, I believe British transport unless you have the money for first-class travel, is not as comfortable as being in one of these coaches. The roads might be questionable from time to time but I’ll live with that for this wonderful journey with lovely people.
Enjoy the snaps…Love G..x