Bangladesh #1: Density
Sylhet to Jamalganj
We left the crazy and vibrant city of Sylhet heading due west, planing to cut across the top of Bangladesh. Although we couldn’t see many roads that went this way, we were confident that we could find some.
The roads were decent but the new challenge was fighting our way down narrow, busy streets through the centre of each town as we passed by.
Quickly you realise that there are people everywhere in this country.
I mean absolutely everywhere.
Bangladesh has three times the population density of India.
Did you get that? Of India! That really densely populated, infamously crazy country next door.
And most of Bangladesh is paddy fields, so all those people are existing of any scrap of land that is not covered in rice.
The sheer number of people combined with no concern for personal space can make Bangladesh feel intimidating. It can feel like you are being pushed around and elbowed constantly. But you come to accept that this is a culture where because there are so many people you have to fight your way through life. You soon learn to enjoy and then embrace it.
Out on a rural road I wait until there is no-one to be seen, lean my bike against a tree and race down a hill to have a wee. Job done, I turn around and there are 20 people taking in the view.
Finding a quiet river bank we stop for a cake-based lunch (not easy to find a reliable source of calories around here). Within a minute we have an entire village watching us closely. And I mean closely. Some people are standing over us, peering down as we eat.
We have lunch in exhausted silence as 50-odd people look on and whisper in the way you might watch lions feeding on safari.
The level of education system is even poorer than its neighbour so no-one speaks a word of English, whilst our Bengali skills are far less than basic. Neither party can communicate, so Bangladeshi’s just stare blankly in silence not seeming to find the situation at all awkward, whilst we smile politely and gobble down cake.
Way up in the north here it’s unlikely they see westerners other than the odd NGO worker, so it’s quite understandable, just takes a bit of getting used to.
As more gathered it became too much so we abandoned lunch and moved on.
While on the road only bicycles and mopeds can pull alongside to have a look, but when stationary we are prey to all, so when you are tired or cranky the best thing is to keep pedalling.
After lunch things got messy as we tried to cut across the northern states. We ended up crawling along a very old brick road which was in disrepair. The bricks then turned to a narrow mud track, the sort sheep would make in an English meadow.
Not even half way to our target town we were stuck in very rural Bangladesh and quite lost.
When there were moments to look up from the concentration required to dodge crevices and steer around rubble, it was stunning.
To our left a desert of green delta stretches as far as the curvature of the earth. To the right a wide river with men casting huge nets. That river we followed south until we found a dock with boats that would row us across.
Moving through village after village we pass mud huts and shelters, the stench of urine and waste unbearable. Children without clothes searching through wastelands, old frail men sleeping by roadsides, families crammed into accommodation unfit for farm animals. We have experienced poverty, but this is desperation.
We continue to be as popular as ever, swathes of folk trying to chase and catch up with us to get a glimpse. As we are going slow it’s easy for kids to chase along, screaming away for kilometres.
As evening comes we stop by a well and apply some purification to clean it up for western bellies.
A group of women quickly emerge and we have some communication through charades. They want to know everything about us but this thick steel language barrier is an almighty frustration for us both. In the end we all just smile at each other, as if we can do little else but enjoy the moment.
After more river crossings and dirt tracks our pace has slowed so much we many hours short of anything we can see on the map.
We come across an unknown and unmarked town after sunset and very luckily happen upon a sign that says ‘Guest’ and take a look. It’s part of the only brick building in town and we take the only 2 rooms. Walking inside we leave a huge throng of onlookers behind and the manager shouts at them before locking the door to stop the crowds following us in.
Soon a knock on our room and some hotel staff would like a photo of us. Another knock, the local priest is here for a selfie. Another knock, the door opens and a group of people just stare.
Asking where we can find food we walk down the street like three pied pipers, tens of locals following behind to see what we do and how we do it. Taken to a small hut we are given chairs while the man fights the crowds to supply us with rice and vegetables which are gobbled down with our hands. Eating all meals with your hands is such an excellent strategy, above all the speed at which food can be shovelled down your neck barely noticing your mouth as it passes is a beautiful thing.
Dinner is consumed with a large audience, although the man in charge tried his best to reduce this number, then we finally make a dash for a bag of sweets and the anonymity of our room.
A few more knocks and it’s bedtime.
Another beautiful day follows of tree lines avenues and sunny paddy field views.
Bangladesh is full of the smoking towers of brick factories, passing one we rest our bikes and gestured that we would like to look around.
We wandered around the various workforces shaping the bricks, stacking them in the kiln, feeding the fire, breaking them out, churning the rejects. It’s mesmerizing watching the productivity occurring with such speed and skill, whilst the workforce look up in shock at the aliens that have arrived.
On a fresh, sunny afternoon we pass kids engaged in a roadside cricket match and are reminded that there is one language we do share with Bangladesh.
And tomorrow we will be playing them at it in the World Cup.