Posted on April 28, 2019
I left my hotel in Falakata, India in anticipation of making it into country number seven on my ride around the world. The roads in West Bengal are as good as any I have seen in the past year. This area of India is green – full of jungle and rice fields brought out by the start of the rainy season.
I opted for the small roads through the villages for the first half of the day. This would leave me with the second half riding along smooth asphalt with little traffic. This was an absolutely perfect day to ride.
There were no signs directing me to the border but the lineup of trucks is usually a good clue. When I finally made it to India immigrations I knew I was in the right place. A man directed me to the right building – not much more than a shack – where I was told I couldn’t cross without an actual visa. Everything I have read and all the people I have talked to said a visa on arrival was available. But I was being told no by the India immigration people.
I was taken to the customs office where a number of people were trying to help. Phone calls were being made and officers were asking and responding to all sorts of questions. It was such a flurry I had no idea who was who. My passport passed through more hands in an hour than it has in the past year!
Eventually I was in an office to wait out the verdict. The India officials wanted to make sure I could cross into Bangladesh before they stamped me out of India.
While I was waiting I had a great conversation about my trip through India. One question I asked is whether or not beer was available in Bangladesh. Although I am not a big drinker I have had zero opportunities to have a beer with dinner since alcohol isn’t a available in much of India.
Before I knew it a big bottle of Kingfisher Beer was sitting on the desk in front of me. A whole month in India and the first beer I get is on my way out. Compliments of the India/Bangladesh border. The beer is 8% alcohol so I didn’t want to drink the large bottle. It is hard enough to balance my fully loaded bicycle as it is. I also didn’t want to go through Bangladesh Immigration while drunk although I doubt I would be the first one to do it.
Once the okay to enter Bangladesh came through I was walked back to India immigration to get stamped out. An easy process when you are basically held by the hand so you go to the right place.
I had to make numerous stops at different desks on my way out of India and into Bangladesh. Every place I needed to have paperwork checked was followed by the ‘unofficial’ selfies. And once one was taken the whole crowd joined in and one selfie turned into eight.
I finally made it to Bangladesh for the final okay. I had to sit in an office for half an hour waiting for the man with the signature to come but after that everything moved quickly.
It was just about 5 PM and my guesthouse – if it actually exists – is six miles down the road. I still need to get some cash and a SIM card. Luckily one of the cyclists I met just before I entered India a month ago gave me the Bangladesh money he had left over from when he was there. Turns out it is worthless outside of Bangladesh and can’t be exchanged. How lucky for me!
I made it to the end of the route and there was no guesthouse to be found. Google once again fooled me into believing there was a nice bed waiting for me there. The sun had just set and a hoard of people crowded around me. Normally the crowds don’t bother me but I just busted my ass to get here before dark and I am left with no place to stay for the night. I am hot, tired, sweaty, thirsty and I have to pee. I have very little money and no data to look at a map. Ca you blame me if I got a little ‘hangry’?
This is a small town but it seems they fit the traffic from a big town into a smaller space. The space between vehicles is nonexistent and the blaring horns explode in my head as I am trying to find someplace to stay.
The people I have passed in the short six miles from the border have been exceptionally friendly. I didn’t have time to stop due to the disappearing light but it made me look forward to the days to come. I am starting to get really excited about Bangladesh.
As I slowly made my way down the main road I alternated my pedaling with pushing with my feet on the ground. It was difficult to move more than ten or twenty feet before I had to stop again.
Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a sign that was flashing ‘Welcome’ above a doorway. I stopped and waited patiently for the words to change to see if this was a place to stay. Finally I saw the word ‘bed’ and I was ecstatic! A place to stay!
It is times like this when I don’t care what shape the room is in. It is in fact a room and my experience has offered my a few places not fit for human comfort. I survived them and I will survive more in the future.
I was directed down an alley so I could make my way one floor up to reception. A gentleman who spoke English and was staying at the hotel helped me through the process. He told my my bike would be safe in the dark alley. The growing crowd that followed me down the alley made me a bit uneasy but I accepted his assurance and walked up to get a room.
The staff was very helpful and with their help soon all my bags were up in my room and my bike securely locked inside the ground floor.
All I wanted to do at this point is shower, get some clean clothes on and find money and food.
This is where things started to slip into the arena of weirdness.
There was a knock at my door and the gentleman who helped and one of the staff said the police were downstairs. Nothing to worry about. They just needed to check information. This didn’t sound unusual to me as many places notify the police of the aria of foreigners. I was surely the only westerner in this town and it would be impossible not to stand out.
I was met downstairs by a number of people from the local police station. No one had uniforms so I couldn’t tell who was who but there was one guy who was clearly in charge.
They took the information from my passport and asked a bunch of questions about my trip. They seemed satisfied and after a round of obligatory selfies I went back upstairs to finish up so I could go and eat.
Before I could leave there was another knock on my door. Just a few more questions they said. It turns out they just needed a couple of clarifications. This went quickly and didn’t seem out of the ordinary.
More selfies then I was off for dinner. But I was not alone. The gentleman that helped me was walking with me. I went to a restaurant that I picked out on the road as I was coming into town. And he was with me the whole way.
He helped me choose some food to eat and had the staff run to find me a cold coke. How can you not like people who do things like this? He didn’t eat but he sat and talked with me while I ate.
While I was eating he got a phone call. He said that someone from the police – a little higher up in rank – was going to come to the restaurant to meet me and introduce himself. He was going to ask some more questions.
The same questions were asked and he made it clear that my safety was their priority. Those words are being used more and more as the evening wears on.
Dinner was finished and I paid my 120 Bangladesh taka. By the time we returned to the guesthouse I was told to take a seat for a few minutes. More police, more questions. The same guy from the restaurant arrived and he said that the Supervisor of the District Police wanted to talk with me. We waited about ten minute for his call to come.
The supervisor was as nice as everyone else has been. He asked me where I would go tomorrow and what time I would leave. He asked about my entire route in Bangladesh and how long it would take as well as where I would be exiting.
The word ‘safety’ preceded by the word ‘your’ came up a number of times. He said he will be sending over some police to spend the night at the hotel. “For your safety”.
Hmmmm…. after passing all of those exceptionally nice people on the road just a couple of hours ago I am beginning to think there is more to this place called Bangladesh.
He then went on to say that the police would be escorting me on my route. Because of the crackling on the phone I was not sure if he said they would follow me just in his district or that I could expect them for the entire time I will be in Bangladesh. I wasn’t too sure what to make of that at this point.
Each time I spoke with the police I was asked if I had a Bangladesh SIM card. They really seemed to want me to have one but because of my late arrival in town I didn’t have time to search for one. I think they will be assisting me in finding a card.
Over a few of the conversations they asked me if I had total control of my journey. Was there someone else I had to answer to? Was I being paid by any magazine or newspaper for pictures? I was not sure where those questions originated. I was beginning to feel like they thought I was visiting for an ulterior reason. Did they think I am a spy of some sort? This sin’t North Korea or Iran but I started to get uneasy feeling about the questions they were asking.
Looking around the room I imagined this scene in a movie. What would it be portraying? A white guy going over his plans with Bangladesh officials? A white guy about to sign his ‘confession’ with ten locals hovering over him? A bunch of kidnappers plotting their ransom demands.
Each of them would fit.
We finished up our business and I headed up to my room. Not three minutes later there was another knock at my door. This time there were three uniformed police amongst a few other people. The older policeman introduced himself and said he would be staying in the room next to mine. I am not sure if the two younger ones were also staying but they seemed excited to meet the guest of honor.
At this point there are many thoughts going through my head. I recently read an article – 35 Countries Where Americans Are Most Likely To Get Kidnapped. It seems Bangladesh is on the list. Lucky me! I hit the jackpot!
I sit in my room wondering if I am actually a guest or some sort of a prisoner defined somewhere on a sliding scale. The last time I had so many concerned about my well being was when I had my stroke three years ago almost to the day. My room has bars on the windows and the door can be locked from the outside using a padlock.
My journey through Bangladesh has taken an unexpected turn. I don’t know what to expect in the coming days. Will my ‘escorts’ be on me like flies on stink or will it be more relaxed? Will their presence affect my interactions with the people I see on the way? Will they sit down and eat with me?
But the biggest question is why? Why do I need an escort? Have I accidentally entered a country that was best left off my list? Are they trying to keep an eye on me for some reason? Do they think I a looking for something negative about Bangladesh? Are they my friends?
I guess I should I feel comfort in knowing that there are up to three police officers just a few feet away on the other side of a paper thin wall. They will be there if anything arises.
As I am writing this I get another knock on my door. I hear voices on the other side of the door. They are load and demanding although I can’t understand the language so I am not sure. There may be some alcohol involved. The knocks get more impatient as I get some clothes on before I answer the door.
In my head I am thinking whether or not I should put some pants on to answer the door. I’ve lived many years so far but I am unaware of the dress code for a kidnapping.
Two men are on the other side of the door, one still wearing his motorcycle helmet holding a bag of what looked like food. Uber Eats maybe? They look surprised when they see me and I think they were looking for someone else. They say ‘sorry’ with a true look of someone who knocked on the wrong door.
We are probably wondering the same thing at this point. Where the hell are my ‘protectors’ that are right next door? Surely they heard the ruckus as the men were knocking on my door.
If all of this is for my safety would the wise thing to do be to take the hint? Maybe instead of heading deeper into Bangladesh I should turn around and go back to India.
What if my escorts will only follow me while I am in this district? Is this district less safe than others? How will I feel if there are no escorts at the next district? Will I ever have a sound sleep what dangers lurk out there?
There isn’t much info online about people cycling through Bangladesh. The guy that gave me the Bangladesh taka a month ago said he didn’t feel unsafe other than worrying about the crazy drives.
I don’t feel the least bit unsafe until the police showed up multiple times concerned about my safety.
If I was left on my own at this point I think I would over react every time I caught someone looking at me. Considering the amount of people who stare in this part of the world that could drive me crazy in just an hour. The people in India as well as Bangladesh will gather around – well within your personal space. They will just watch you. No matter what you are doing. Rarely will they interact. Just stare.
Looking back I start thinking that those stares are blank stares, almost soulless. Ten, fifteen, twenty people just staring. I think that will freak me out now that I will be looking at it through a tainted eye.
If I decide to turn back in the morning there would be no need to get cash or a SIM card. The police that would be assigned to me for the next day or week would have to find something better to do. And that ulcer that would surely develop in three or four days from worrying would be averted.
Every time I hear a door slam or shouting in the hallway I wonder what is going to happen. I wait for another knock on my door. I can somewhat understand the rollercoaster of emotions that actual hostages go through as they wonder what comes after every sound they hear.
In an instant the power goes out with a thud I can actually feel in my chest. I sit on the edge of my bed in a physical and mental darkness that to this day I have not previously experienced. I just sit there and wonder.