The first shock is the visa cost: $145. One hundred and forty-five? To get into Bangladesh? You’d think they’d be trying to encourage visitors, not scare them off.
But that’s how much it costs to visit Bangladesh. OK, you can wear that, it’s not so much in the grand scheme of international travel. And it’ll probably be worth it, right?
The plane touches down in Dhaka and all hell breaks loose. People are up and out of their seats as soon as the wheels hit the ground, pulling bags down from lockers, oblivious to the chaos they’re causing beneath them. Hosties try in vain to keep everyone seated as boxes and plastic bags come crashing into the aisle.
That’s a pretty good introduction to Bangladesh.
I jump in a taxi at the airport. I need to get to the bus station to get to the southern city of Chittagong. I’ve been to India before so I know what this will be like. Except, I don’t have a clue.
The traffic is insane, a dense knot of people and bicycles and carts and rickshaws and taxis and buses and trucks. The newer cars don’t have bumpers but steel bars surrounding them in a vain attempt to protect pristine paintwork in a place with no respect for pristine paintwork.
It’s hot. My shirt is sticking to me in the back of the taxi as I stare in petrified fascination at the scene playing through the front windscreen. There are strange smells, the honking of horns, the yelling of touts.
It’s amazing how you can spend a small amount of time in a country and it can leave such a permanent mark. Some destinations you’ll barely be able to remember. But Bangladesh? Every detail is burnt in the memory in vivid Technicolor.
It’s wild. There can be a big difference between “memorable” and “fun”, and while Bangladesh certainly falls into the former category, it doesn’t always join the latter. Everything is a shock, like nothing you’ve ever seen or experienced before.
The main bus station in the capital city of Bangladesh is actually just a small shed with an airconditioner that fights a losing battle against the dense heat. I buy a ticket and board a bus, watching in confusion as a man walks down the aisle filming the passengers’ faces.
Um, 1970 called, guys – it wants its video camera back.
Soon our bus joins that knot of traffic and we make our way south along the scariest road I’ve ever been on in my entire life, a hellish stretch of constant near misses with every type of vehicle imaginable. I put on my headphones, close my eyes, pretend I’m in … I don’t know, Baghdad. Anywhere but here.
It’s dark when I’m dumped in Chittagong, at a featureless intersection of another busy street. I’m supposed to meet a friend, but she’s not here. I might be in the wrong spot.
I wind up in a cycle rickshaw, backpack and all, making very slow progress across to the other side of town. This is a city of 4 million people and it only has one set of traffic lights. And they don’t work.
I make it to my friend’s house. Eventually. And over the next four days, things get really interesting.
There are the open sewers that constantly flood the city. Groups of kids work the corner of our street begging from foreign aid workers who know better than to hand over their cash. My friend buys them a snack; they break into smiles.
There are the tales of constant illness from expats. There’s laughter from the locals at my shorts and thongs. (It’s 45 degrees outside, but only children wear shorts, and only rickshaw drivers wear thongs.)
There’s an impromptu game of cricket that threatens to escalate into something worse when groups of teenagers start surrounding my friend, a Western girl in demure local dress. More join the group, and more. We find ourselves having to make a swift escape.
There’s the museum dedicated to General Zia, the founder of Bangladeshi independence, housed in his former abode. In one of the rooms, red splotches stain the walls. This is where the general was assassinated, we’re told – the splotches are his blood.
There’s the realisation, thanks to my friend, that the video taken on the bus had a horrifying purpose. The films are used, she says, to make it easier to identify the bodies in the highly likely event of an accident.
I decide to take a night train back to Dhaka. It crashes. The passengers are marched off, put in buses, and sent back onto that road.
I make it back to the airport, eventually, and bid this crazy country goodbye.
One short week: a thousand stories, a million experiences. Definitely worth $145 for a visa.