Getting stuck in a toilet, and the Road of Death

The paddle boat was 80 years old. It had been inaugurated by King George V, that’s how old it was. The rooms were odd little old-fashioned cabins with all the original fittings, plus a TV that someone had thoughtfully bolted to the wall. I tried it. It only had one channel- Bangla Bollywood with screeching vocals. It only had one volume too- Earpiercingly Loud. I didn’t try it again.

The boat began to meander its way down the river, while we sipped tea and ate muffins. We sat and chatted with some friendly Germans, two of only a few tourists here in this strange neck of the woods.

The sunset was incredible over the docks as we left. It was all very nice.

River dolphins frolicked about in the water, leaping out completely occasionally just when I was looking the other way, causing everyone else on the boat to sigh appreciatively and me to mutter profanities.

Adam got locked in the toilet almost immediately It was very amusing, but then I was on the outside. He was in there for a while. There was a little grill he could peer through. His eyes looked worried. He had to be rescued by a man who climbed through the tiny window on the outside of the boat and handed him a screwdriver to unscrew the doorknob with. I sniggered. So did a couple of passengers. But it meant we firmly cemented our relationship with the ship’s main man, who proceeded to faff around Adam for the whole trip, patting him on various parts of his anatomy whenever possible.

The banks were full of kids waving at us from semi-submerged rice paddies.

The river had apparently eroded giant tracts of land, large chunks of field stuck out vertically where they had fallen in, still with bits of tree attached. Everything looked a little precarious. Having said that it also managed to look decidedly idyllic, from our lovely Georgian boat. Presumably there was the same horrible poverty lurking on the banks as there was elsewhere in the country, but it was wearing a very romantic façade.

We were informed Michael Palin had stayed on this very boat, in cabin Nr 5, some six years ago. We excitedly relayed this to our German friends, but they were slightly less impressed. Maybe it only works on English people.

The boat stopped at little ports fairly often, and vast hordes of people would suddenly rush up the very rickety gangplanks, carrying enormous bulging sacks on their heads. It looked very dangerous. The planks were held together with bamboo and string, and very probably not designed for that sort of thing.

Everyone stared at us whenever we stopped anywhere. I stared back. It’s kind of handy being in a culture where its ok to stare at things, it means I can do what I secretly want to do anyway, and just have a good look at everyone.

We arrived. I didn’t want to get off, and considered stowing away for the return journey- my bed was cosy, the scenery was brilliant, and there were people onhand to provide muffins. That’s about as close to heaven as I have been in a while.

A sobering reminder that this place wasn’t heaven was to be found in the newspaper at the hotel we stayed in that night. Among other horrific stories was an article about ‘cross-fire’ killings. These are incidents of the police killing ‘criminals’ that they haven’t enough evidence to convict. The whole country knows the official story that the person died after having been arrested and caught in the cross-fire that followed when their criminal pals tried to shoot them free is complete rubbish. Only one person is ever killed or injured, and usually with a single bullet to the back of the head. An MP of the elected government admitted as much this week, and said that the extra-judicial killings were needed as an additional law enforcement tool. I have tried to imagine this scenario at home and luckily I can’t. The Labour government caused uproar when it tried to extend the time it could keep suspected terrorists in custody for without charge. Here the government admits what people have known for a long time - that it shoots people dead who it suspects to have committed crimes but doesn’t have the evidence to convict- and it gets a mention on page 3. A cultural difference…

The next day we took a far less romantic route back again. We found a bus. It was horrible and severely battered, but it was also the best of the buses. I sat huddled up in a corner trying not to open my eyes too often as we were hurtled up the highway at a ridiculous pace. There was a lot of swerving, a great deal of beeping, and far too much speed. There was also a short ferry journey, where we sat in the little manky tea-shop onboard and Adam got chatted up by a young Engineering student. His parents had, fairly meanly I thought, left him at the age of six to emigrate to the States without him. They had taken his brother and left him in the care of his grandparents. He seemed understandably a little bitter, and was adamant he wasn’t going to go find them.

Anyway, I was very surprised when we got to Dhaka in one piece. I was even more surprised when it transpired I hadn’t in fact caught Swine Flu from all the wild sneezing going on around me. There are a lot of respiratorily impaired Bangladeshis out there.

Back in Dhaka it was time to for some much needed life administration. It involved laundry and the purchasing of Octane Booster, a crap-petrol-improver. The bike was making some unusual noises, which worsened on our arrival into Bangladesh and partaking of the local fuel. (A belated service and the octane booster seem to have improved matters.)

You’d imagine a simple task like buying octane booster shouldn’t take too long. Dhaka has a way of making simple things very, very difficult. Six hours elapsed from us setting off to the petrol station, only 100 meters away, where we had been told we could buy the stuff, until we eventually returned.

At some point during our mission we stopped and sank to the side of the road to contemplate the total exhaustion. A chirpy young chap wandered up and gazed at us with big eyes, then promptly invited us to his home for sweets. Being properly brought up never to accept sweets from strangers, we both readily accepted.

We arrived at his student house and met eight more gleeful Dhaka University students, happily celebrating his birthday ‘with much love‘. We spent an excellent hour talking to him and his friends about Bangladesh, and student life. We were apparently the first foreigners they had ever met, and we posed for photos and signed autographs (a singularly odd experience…), and Adam signed a cricket bat. It was interesting to note that student flats look much alike around the world.

The following day started with an alarm mishap, the mishap being we hadn’t set the alarm. We were supposed to get up at five but we had no idea what time it was in our windowless room and eventually realised something was wrong at nine.

We hurriedly left Dhaka for Chittagong. We were supposed to buy a Bangladesh road atlas the previous day, but with the gargantuan effort required for the octane booster there wasn’t enough energy left to find the map shop.

We had to stick to the highway or risk getting lost forever. Annoyed at our double foolishness of no map and leaving a crazed city of 18 million during a rush hour we eventually found our way out of Dhaka and were spewed onto the highway.

We don’t drive on highways much. Thats because on the sub-continent they are much as you would expect – pretty hairy most of the time. However, the Dhaka – Chittagong highway, henceforth known as the Road of Death, deserves a special mention.

It truly is magnificently awful. There are about 10km of central reservation at the beginning and the end but the remaining 240kms are along a narrow, reasonably straight, reasonably good condition, almost single track raised road, with steep ditches to each side.

That may not sound bad, but when you add to that what feels like, and must not be far off, millions of people, cattle, cats, dogs, cycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, motorcycles, cars, trucks and buses all moving at different speeds (but at the maximum at which their respective mode of transport allow – aided by the relatively good condition of the road) with nobody wishing to give way to anybody else then you have a recipe for disaster. And disaster is what follows, frequently, attested to by the multitude of smashed vehicles strewn along the sides.

It was without doubt the worst road we have ever been on. We were forced off the road and onto the narrow verge, centimeters from falling into the watery ditch meters below hundreds of times. (This has happened for some time on highways now, but the frequency with which this ensued on this road was unbelievable.)

There were many occasions when we, and the bus heading straight for us, were so far over our side of the road that neither of us was actually on it anymore, but both had wheels in the dirt at the side of it. This was made much worse by the fact that the road was raised so there was only a finite amount of space that we were actually able to pull over into. A few times the bus had taken up all the space we could have moved into so all that was left to do was screech to a halt, tilt the bike away from the coming impact and pray! Thankfully they all did miss. Just.

The number of accidents you see clearly shows that not all of them miss. We were foolish enough to stop at the scene of one to photograph it.

It was by no means the worst we saw that day, but the fact that we soon gathered a crowd on either side of us (who we also quickly photographed) thereby making the road much more dangerous deterred us from using the camera again that day.

We were lucky enough to eventually arrive into Chittagong for 8pm, filthy and petrified but unharmed. From here we will try to arrange the bikes onward travel to Thailand. Whatever happens it will be a long time before I fancy making that trip to Dhaka again.


  1. Thanks for sharing all these great stories.

  2. The "road of death" wasn't nearly as bad in the seats of a Greenline! Joff.

  3. Nicky,
    I love your writing style, it makes me laugh and your adventures have me longing to return to the road.
    Cheers from New Mexico USA


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