My first visit to rural Bangladesh was one of transportation: we rode countless buses, rickshaws, boats and walked on foot through paved streets, dirt roads, shallow rivers and mud puddles. We were definitely transported to another side of Bangladesh being outside of Dhaka, so it was fitting that we did nothing but use transportation to entertain ourselves: just looking out the window is a cultural experience.
I visited my friend Maude in the town Gaibandha, in the northwest state Rajshahi. She will be working with the French NGO, Friendship, and interviewing young students from a new project they started. The six-hour bus ride was certainly a trip – I might have lost hearing from the pleasure the driver took in honking the horn. But it might have been necessary, because he liked to drive on the right side of the road (which is the wrong side of the road here) to pass the sluggish trucks full of bananas, jute or chickens.
Friday is the weekend, the only day-off the whole week. But most stores are closed, then most restaurants are closed for Ramadan, as are the museums. As women, we are not allowed to visit mosques – so what is there to do in Northwest Bangladesh?
Well, quite frankly, nothing. But Maude and I decided we did not travel here to sit in the NGO office alone. We hopped on a two-hour bus to the town Mahasthangarh (still having trouble pronouncing it myself.) We were dropped off at a mosque then wandered down a road to the museum to discover it was closed. The road was beautiful: lined with rice pattys blowing in a soft breeze. It was so quiet that we could hear the wind, something lost in the madness of Dhaka.
After discovering there was nothing more to do in Mahasthangarh besides breaking rocks with other rocks, we hopped on another bus to a ‘bigger’ town, Bogra. It was after noon at this point and we haven’t eaten all day with all the restaurants closed. But after breaking through the swarm of bus hustlers asking, “kothay jabe?” (‘where are you going?’), we found a hotel for foreigners that had a restaurant. We enter sweating, and smile in the breeze of the fans and in the soundlessness of the lobby away from the hustlers – then the electricity goes out.
We wait 40 minutes for the fan and our food, but Maude and I are super chatty so it went fast. And luckily, in the hour we took for lunch, it began then ended the daily rain. We talk to our waiter about what there is to do in Bogra: "Nothing," he responds. “Go to Sariakandi and take a boat ride around the river for 50tk.” Why not?
Hopping on to rickshaw, we swerve through Bogra into another city for 20 minutes then stop at a bench. “Bus station.” We sit on the bench and ask the ticket man when the next bus to Sariakandi is coming: “Five minutes.”
Twenty-five minutes later, there are a constant horde of about two dozen Bangladeshi men standing around, sometimes so close I can feel the air from their open mouths, staring in curiosity. None of them try to talk to us. I try to talk but they just stare. Their dialect is different and can’t understand me. I try to make them leave, but they just laugh. Finally the bus came.
Onto another bus ride, which by the way - women usually sit in front. Mostly to avoid harassment. After sitting on the back of the bus at one point, I learned my lesson never to sit in the back ever again. We arrive at another town, and the rickshaw-wallah takes us to the river. Now we are in a village, with naked little boys running around, hitting each other with sticks, avoiding their mothers screams not to step on the drying dates in the middle of road.
We arrive at the river and the first thing we notice: no noise. No motors, no yelling, no piercing radios blasting Bangla music. We only attract a small crowd, of about 15 people and we turned our backs to the land and stared into the river – so we almost felt alone. We “spoke of many things, fools and kings,” and watched a man try to catch tiny fish with a five-foot long U-shaped net.
Realizing our skin is beginning to burn (the woes of being white in a country where its people don’t sunburn), we head back to the bus stop, which is a bench. A crowd gathers, and we count: 47 people at one point. In order for us to keep our cool, we make jokes: “We’re like monkeys in a zoo: they can’t communicate with us, but they just watch how we sit and look. Go get a banana, and you can feed us! We should start charging them like a zoo: 100tk to stare. For 500tk, take a picture. For 1000tk maybe we’ll smile. Buy us some food, and maybe we’ll do a dance. Or, maybe I should just start foaming at the mouth and try to bite them, will they go away?”
One man came over to shoo everyone away. I smiled softly at him and said, “onek dhonobad (many thanks).” He smiled sympathetically. After a minute of pushing everyone away, more people surrounded us after wondering why a man was shooing everyone away. Mission quiet time: futile. At least having so many people stand over you blocks out the sun and her harmful rays…We then, again, jump on a bus that has a lion roaring instead of an actual motor, sit on holey cushions and pick off the ants as we speed through the green landscape. And when I say green – man, I tell ya, I mean green. Because Bangladesh is such a wet country, there are always crops and plants growing, whether they are edible or not. If there isn’t a plant, there is water that reflects the green colors of the surrounding plants.
It’s now evening, almost the end of today’s fast. We stop around dusk for all the men to get off and smoke their first cigarette since the morning. Maude and I bolt off the bus to find some food and water – sweet relief! It’s hard to not eat the whole day, but it’s even worse when you are in a climate that you are not accustomed too. The weather is so hot and we become so dehydrated. In trying to be respectful, I never try to eat or drink in front of Bangladeshis who are fasting, but it’s hard to find quiet place alone when everyone follows you like celebrities (without body guards).
Around 8, we’re back in Gaibandha. The town is beautiful at night – no cars on the road, just motorbikes and rickshaws and a few buses. We pass all the stores open for the night, lit by candle. We find our way home by the torch on my cell phone, walking through the sounds of geckos and frogs, running past the growling stray dogs. Finally, as Maude digs through her bag to find the key to the NGO’s office (where we are sleeping), I stand out from under the verandah and for the first time, see the stars from the view of Bangladesh.