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