When the phone rings in the middle of the night, and all your loved ones know you're six hours time difference away, the news isn't going to be good. Sure, it was sad, and Mike soon realised after learning that his dad had become seriously ill, that he just wanted to get home.
The Lonely Planet Guidebook advised against bus travel in Bangladesh. We had taken this advice seriously, having travelled on buses in India, where they hadn't made such a fuss about it, and knowing how hair-raising those trips had been, made us think the Bangladeshi driving style must take us to new heights. However, in this instance we had no choice. There was a flight at 9 pm, 18 hours from the time Mike had decided he wanted to get back to his family. A train would be too slow and having experienced such shenanigans the day before trying to secure our ticket to Chittagong by train, we knew we had to get on with a journey by road.
There was a coach leaving at 6.30 am. It was scheduled to arrive in Dhaka at 10. We reckoned it would take longer than 5 hrs as we knew the roads would be congested. We couldn't afford to miss the early bus, as delays would be compounded throughout the day. I booked our flight and silently thanked our lucky stars that we had chosen Emirates and had an excellent data service from our Bangladesh sim card. I was able to re-book our return flights and pre-book our seats using the mobile website. There was no price hike on the flight cost, even though we wanted to fly the same day.
The only member of staff Mike found at the hotel spoke no English and wandered sleepily into our room wearing just a piece of cloth wrapped around his waist. Mike rang Tapas, the tour guide and part owner of the hotel at 5.30, he was empathetic and reiterated the importance of getting the 6.30 coach. Hanif was the name of the company. We left cash in an envelope to settle our bill. Along with our hard earned and overpriced train ticket, purchased the day before and leaving for Chittagong at lunchtime.
The street outside the hotel was eerily quiet. No one was up yet and a thick fog had settled overnight. Mike hurried ahead, periodically looking back into the gloom to make sure I was still behind him.
There was a black and gold painted coach parked on the left hand side of the street and a table on the nearside of it. There were a few young men standing around the desk and Mike asked the man sitting at it for two tickets to Dhaka. He wrote them out on a triplicate ticket, like airlines used to have. He grunted something at us impatiently and flicked his wrist dismissively in the direction of the bus. Deciding there was no time to lose we boarded with our back packs and were shown to our seats. As soon as we'd dumped the packs on the seat on the other side of the corridor, we set off. It was 6.23 am. 7 minutes early, we had so nearly missed the bus. And we were about to find out if Bangladeshi bus driving was as bad as we had been lead to believe. Worse!
Imagine an animated film where the occupants of the bus are being driven to hell, Satan is at the wheel and he thrashes the bus mercilessly, horn blaring, gears crunching and the whole charabanc shakes and clatters over the pot-holed road. The passengers are reduced to skeleton figures by fear, as each manoeuvre is undertaken. The driver overtakes on blind bends, in the fog and spends most of his time on the wrong side of the road, facing the oncoming traffic. He forces other vehicles such as CNGs off the road and clips a couple of lorries, one as he overtakes, the other as it approaches. One lorry driver took exception. The windows were lowered and the drivers argued as both vehicles stopped, ours in the middle of the road. Our driver as aggressive in his arguing as his driving style. Mike asked me if this was the most dangerous road as described in the Lonely Planet. It wasn't, that was the Chittagong/Dhaka road. I couldn't help myself and kept looking forwards through the windscreen. "I think it's best not to know, Mike" I repeated regularly as my eyes were drawn forward to see what was coming up next.
Soon after we left Srimangal the heavy industry, responsible for Bangladesh's booming economy, lined the roadside. Mile after mile, factory upon factory each one had a chimney that belched thick, acrid smoke. They mainly appeared to be brick factories and clearly the working conditions and adherence to any kind of clean air, pollution control or workers' rights were firmly entrenched in an equivalent time to our industrial revolution. No wonder the West ships it's work out here, of course the costs are less. But what about the toll on people,their health, or the environmental damage? We turn a blind eye to buy garments a few pence cheaper or hear that share holders continue to enjoy good returns as companies maintain healthy profit margins.
We had both read magazine and travel articles written in flowery prose in praise of Bangladesh. It seemed strange to me that authors could avoid mentioning this dark reality. The Brahmaputra River runs through the country and is made up of several tributaries. One of which is the Ganges, which flows through India. I understand that it is used as a sewer, toilet, for ablutions, and washing, dead bodies are thrown into it and factories pump untreated effluent into it. At Varanasi in India, it is a holy river and bodies are cremated and their funeral pyres float downstream. Travel writers had described the river using language of this type - not an exact quote: 'mighty, a majestic artery, the lifeblood of the city, and country'. When we took a little row boat across it during our Dhaka visit less than a fortnight previously, I was struck by the inky blackness and the pungent smell. Today, as our coach rattled over the bridge I looked down at it and the only word that came into my mind was 'sump'. I don't think a career as a travel writer is coming my way soon.
Anyway, of course we arrived safe and sound, a CNG got us to the airport 6 hours early and the news on TV told of a road accident where a lorry and coach had run each other off the road that day. There had been fatalities and I didn't need any reminding that it could so easily have been us.
So, just 12 days after our arrival in Bangladesh our trip had been cut short. There was so much more to see, and we hope to return one day. I know my description of the pollution seems negative but my aim is to be realistic. It's the bits the brochures don't tell you that gives independent travel the edge. But the contrast between the tea plantations and jungle of Srimangal the day before couldn't have been more striking.