In and out of “The Desh” (Bangladesh) and reaching Myanmar
Day 1,954 since October 10th 2013: 172 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross)
I once left a large part of my heart in Bangladesh
“I would love to do what you do”. Really? You would? If that’s the case then you either don’t know what I do or you are a sadist. Would you like to be away from home for five years? Would you like to say farewell to people all the time? Would you like to spend hundreds of hours in uncomfortable public transportation? Would you like to be constantly misunderstood? Do you like feeling lonely? Would you like to work a minimum of fifty hours a week? Would you like to work unpaid. If yes then you are a strange cat!! However there is a bunch of good stuff too ;)
Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh. It is a megacity with around 20 million people. Bangladesh is one of the world’s most densely populated countries with somewhere around 170 million people and maybe a lot more. Bangladesh is south of the Himalayas and is mostly a flat, green wetland. All that snow and rain which hits the Himalayas has got to go somewhere. Just north of Bangladesh you’ll find Mawsynram on the Khasi Hills, Meghalaya, in India. Mawsynram is recorded to have received the highest annual rainfall in the world. That massive rainfall needs to run somewhere too: Bangladesh. As such it is a mostly flat, rockless, wet, green country prone to disaster. Earthquakes are frequent, cyclones hit every year, flooding is a hazard, mosquito borne deceases, widespread poverty and lack of education. Sounds horrible? Well...there is equally much good to be said about about Bangladesh which used to be my home from January to December 2011. And a large part of my heart belongs to this country.
Is this the part you envy?
But first I had to get there. I actually find a lot of the Saga downright miserable!! It’s a funny thing. There’s a lot of stress, routine and an immense amount of work involved here behind the scenes. However when I look back at what we have accomplished and think of all the wonderful people I have met, along with the extraordinary experiences...well...then I think it was all worth it. I’m pretty fed up with people telling me things aren’t possible, with applying for visas and with uncomfortable transportation. On my way out of Bhutan, while back in India for our third round of four, I was trying to stand an old woman’s naked stomach pushing hard against my shoulder and moving closer towards my face!!! The bus was jam packed and the noise and body odor didn’t help!!! In moments like that I think: WHY?!? I’d really like to see someone try to copy this project. For one: just to see how far they would get before they quit. But certainly also to have something to laugh about!!! Never mind...let’s keep on keeping on. Getting to Dhaka from Thimphu in Bhutan required: 1 car, 5 busses, 5 rickshaws and 26 hours of (mostly uncomfortable) transport...
At the Bangladeshi border trucks with rocks go in and trucks with garments go out. You're probably wearing some clothes made in Bangladesh right now.
Crossing the border went smooth. I came through the Siliguri Corridor (Banglabandha) which was meant to open up trade but remains somewhat undeveloped. There are various stories regarding why that might be. Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Before the partition both Bangladesh and Pakistan used to be a part of India. On that note you might want to have a look at a map just to see the craziness of having the massive landmass of India in the middle of west and east Pakistan! That would have been a heck of a job to manage. India is today a massive financial and military power and many say that India wishes to have regional dominance. Sure...why not? Isn’t that what powerful countries do? China is equally a large and fast growing economy with an equally impressive military power. Interestingly China and India are the only two countries on earth with more than a billion mouths to fed. Things are moving very fast in China. You may recall that China is opening up the west of China through the Karakoram Highway into Pakistan and with a huge new port in Baluchistan. Well, Bangladesh has a coastline too. It’s all about business and how to secure it. China is financially strong and that comes in handy when you’re negotiating with Bangladesh.
Jackfruits and tea are Bangladeshi trademarks. So are rice fields.
Hunting for the next bus onward...
There is something about Bangladesh that will have you scratch the back of your head. The people are definitely hard workers but somehow have very little to show for it. The land has much history to boast about however most architectural history has been destroyed by earthquakes or washed away in floods - or both. On arrival to Bangladesh I went through immigration and customs which went relatively smooth. I was then called into an office where I was charged with a fee for using the port facilities. When I questioned that I was told that I was inside the building and that they had toilets. I proclaimed that was crazy as I had payed more than $100 USD for my visa. They waved the fee but still gave me the signed and stamped receipt. When I looked closer the box stating that I was leaving Bangladesh had been checked? Next up I had to find a bus to Dhaka. How hard could that be? There was a small shack with a counter and after approaching it I learned that the next bus would leave at 8pm. I crossed the border shortly after 9am and they now expected me to wait around ten hours? No thank you. And since people are generally unable to think outside of the box I was left on my own. The bus ticket salesman ensured me that I wouldn’t make it to Dhaka that day. I looked at him, smiled and said: “do you want to bet?”
Most people I know avoid these busses on the road. I ride inside them.
The first bus was a monster and getting into it might as well have been a death wish. However the view outside was just gorgeous!! Bangladesh is such an amazingly beautiful country and looking across the fields you could spot farmers in traditional colorful clothing attending to their work. Hard work! Butterflies are common and tree canopies formed a shaded tunnel for our bus to roar through. Well that bus got me to Panchagarh. There I was also told that all the busses would leave at night. A rickshaw driver got me to a bus that could bring me onward to Rangpur. That journey was fairly equal to the first one. Hours later in Rangpur I hunted down my third bus. So far I had a hard time making any use of speaking English. In Rangpur it was no different. However where there is a will there is a way. And I eventually left Rangpur on a bus heading to Dhaka. Within that bus I was seated next to a young soldier who lent me his phone. I called my friend Louise to let her know that I was making good time and expected to reach her around midnight. The soldier asked me what I thought about Bangladesh. I told him that it was an amazing country. A country where the population is kind, the food is good and the land is green. A country which, long before the first European countries, had banned plastic bags. A country with a beautiful coastline. A country where vehicles predominantly run on CNG (compressed natural gas) and not petrol. A country with more UN peacekeepers than any other. The soldier looked at me and said: “yes, and twice we have been the most corrupt country in the world”. Well that’s a kind of record too. He was a good guy on his way home for a few days of R&R before returning to the base. He eventually got off and wished me well. I got closer to Dhaka. Around 11pm the bus reached the outskirts of Dhaka and after two hours of intense traffic I got off and was collected by Louise's driver. She was still up when I reached the apartment. It was her birthday and she was lounging on the porch together with her friend Anja. It was great seeing Louise again but it was late and I needed sleep.
If you do not immidiately love the guy behind me then you're going straight to hell!! ;)
The next day Louise and I got to talk about the good old days and we did a little sightseeing in my old neighbourhood. I was left with a rather empty feeling. So much had changed! I guess it wasn’t unlike revisiting your old childhood home after someone else moved into it. The expat life in Dhaka centres a lot around what used to be nine clubs of various nationalities. I forgot to ask how many clubs there are now? Back in 2011 you had the Dutch Club, the American Club etc. I had my membership in the Nordic Club. All the clubs were pretty similar: a pool, tennis courts, library, restaurant, bar, lounging area and stuff like that. It was surrounded by a wall and inside you could escape the sometimes hectic life of a city with 20 million people. There would be tennis tournaments between the various clubs and on and off you would simply visit another club for a night just to get some variety. Reality was however that I was contracted to work sixty hours a week and only had Fridays off. Traffic to the worksite would take around thirty minutes in the early morning but then between two to three hours in the afternoon when you headed back. I have successfully beat my driver in getting back TWICE by WALKING. However it also wasn’t a nice walk. The traffic was horrific and chaotic back in 2011. I found it a lot lighter during this 2019 visit. Anyway…they’ve demolished the old Nordic Club!!! Yes!! All my memories were brought down to rubble. A modern high rise now sits on the property and Nordic Club has received a new address. It wasn’t bad (the new club) but it didn’t feel right. Louise and I also made our way by my old apartment building which looked tired and uninviting. I had countless sleepless nights due to the construction of a building next to my apartment. The workers would frequently come around at 03:00am and unload rocks while shouting to each other. And it would sound like it was going on inside my bedroom. Well guess what? They also tore that building down!!! All that noise for nothing then? A new high rise was under construction as Louise and I passed by. That’s a pretty common story in Dhaka these days. I heard that new laws had been passed enabling the construction of much higher building than before. We are talking twelve or fourteen stories now. It used to be around five or six. I’m not sure how that will play out during the next earthquake but let’s hope they are constructed to last.
Back in 2016 something horrific happened in Bangladesh. A popular bakery and hangout for foreigners was attacked and over a bloody night costs dozens of lives including those of the five gunmen. This seemed absolutely unthinkable back in 2011 when I would walk around whichever neighbourhood I desired late at night or hangout at various restaurants or ice cream parlours. This attack naturally made headlines and caused widespread fear. Unfortunately the media has not been equally busy reporting on the actions since then taken by government. Dhaka has years ago been deemed absolutely safe again by those who live there and I hate to even add these lines within this blog because this isn’t the stuff I ordinarily share and furthermore I know that millions of Bangladeshis are embarrassed that this could ever happen in their country. If you do not already know it then it’s time that you learn: Bangladeshis probably have a bigger heart than head! I mean that in the best way possible. Those South Asians will bend over backwards to please a foreigner in my personal experience. And I have often seen Bangladeshis cry when someone left the workplace back in 2011. They are a lot of heart!! Hospitality plays a remarkable role and this can simply not be overstated.
Many things changed after 2016 but in reality most things stayed the same. The new Nordic Club certainly had a lot more security than the old one. But the tennis couches were more or less the same. Some of the couches at the club also play in professional international competitions but then return to train pale chubby Nordic Vikings as opposed to live luxurious lifestyles. Go figure. If I was as good at tennis as those guys then I would be living in a palace. Oh well…maybe that’s not the full story. In 2011 (bicycle) rickshaws used to line up in front of the clubs. And the rickshaw drivers would know all the expats, know who was inside the club and who was at home. They would know all of our addresses and they would gossip like little girls. However they would also protect us and take care of us as if their lives depended upon it. I once saw someone being mildly harassed to which several rickshaws would appear around the “victim” as dolphins would around a drowning man. Reality was slightly different now in 2019. I couldn’t spot a single rickshaw in front of Nordic Club. Everyone comes and leaves with their drivers now. In the expat areas of Dhaka rickshaw drivers are now required to wear reflective wests and ID. That practice has thinned out the amount of rickshaw drivers quite a bit in my old neighbourhood. On the upside traffic has improved. Not just because of that but also because of a number of initiatives made across the mega city. Several flyovers have been constructed and neighbourhoods have been connected in smarter ways than before.
Somethings haven't changed.
Progress is hard to stop. In the end it might not matter much who is in power. Progress might find its way no matter what. Definitely certain types of progress. The smartphones are to be found left and right in Bangladesh. Even the rickshaw drivers appear to have them. Many are moving out of poverty and the middle class has been growing. Perhaps not as fast as many would hope but it is certainly the right direction. There have been many beautification projects across Dhaka and the city also appeared cleaner to me. Not clean…but cleaner. There were certainly a lot more western style cafes, restaurants, shops and more to meet the demand of the growing middle class. Seven Burger King restaurants are now to be found and that was absolutely unthinkable to me back in 2011. Keep in mind that 2011 isn’t really that long ago. So progress is good and that makes me happy.
Louise and I used to work together at the construction site. Love these guys!! :)
And Louise made me THIS! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!! :)
Louise lives with Peter and I met him in the evening. His a great guy and works within the garment industry much like almost anyone else who’s an expat in Bangladesh. He is however on to something really special right now which might just revolutionize the industry ;) Peter, Louise and I ended up having dinner at the new Nordic Club where Louise’s friend Anja joined us with her husband Peter (yes, most people are named Peter in Denmark). Anja’s Peter works at Arla Foods in Bangladesh, which is an international cooperative based in Denmark, and the largest producer of dairy product in Scandinavia. It turned out they were having their Family Day 2019 the following day and Peter asked me if I wanted to join him? Some 300 employees with their families were expected to show up. Peter would as the managing director be saying a few words but asked if I might be interested in offering the employees a little insight in the Saga for their entertainment and inspiration. I said yes right away.
Peter on stage speaking at Arla's Family Day 2019.
The next morning Peter picked me up early in the morning and we headed out to a resort some 40 minutes out of Dhaka. A mistake I made in 2011 was to start believing that Dhaka is Bangladesh. The truth is in many ways that Bangladesh is everything around Dhaka. Just a short drive out of the city you can see lush fields and breathe clean air. Heading out of Dhaka for a little while will cast off layers of stress. It is such a contrast. I had a great day with the Arla team and at one point my cheeks began to ache from smiling for all those selfies. Selfies have been a big thing around South Asia and Bangladesh is certainly not the exception. Spirits were high, children were laughing, games were played and it didn’t mean a thing is you were a driver, a salesman or a manager. It was just a day of people being people.
So happy to be a part of this picture!! Thank you all!!! :)
As I observed I couldn’t help to think that large international cooperation’s are often instrumental in moving societies forward. A clear example is the zero corruption policies which many international (if not all) carry. A vast amount of countries across our little blue dot are subject to widespread corruption. However when large companies begin influencing employees, clients, customers, partners and suppliers with demands to conduct business without corruption then the ripples start spreading. Much like as if someone throws a piece of paper on the ground then someone else is likely to litter. However the opposite is true as well. Peter picked up some litter and he is “the big dog” in the company. Without asking them too, he’s employees followed suit. I wonder if that isn’t a lesson learned? If nothing else then the children who were present might have observed it. I am Danish and will proudly walk 500 miles (see the reference) with a piece of plastic in my hand until I find a bin to dump it in. Unfortunately I have been laughed at for doing so in some situations. I don’t care. I will not litter on your country and hope that you will return the favour if you ever visit Denmark.
The following day I met up with Hassan Ashraful. Hassan and I got to know each other back in 2011 when I was the logistics manager under the construction of a water treatment plant and he was working for the forwarder we chose to use. That company was Damco which is part of the Maersk Group and he is still working there now eight years later. As Hassan hasn’t aged a day I now suspect him to be a vampire ;) I hardly have any hair left on my head!! It was great to see him again. Since I left Bangladesh we stayed friends over Facebook. Hasn’t Facebook just made the world a little smaller? Well I certainly don’t feel that the world is small anymore. Hassan showed up with his driver and took me out for a spin. You have gathered by now that it is pretty common to have a driver in Bangladesh. Well it isn’t for everyone obviously but once you reach a certain pay grade it begins to make sense. Drivers and maids are very affordable in Bangladesh and for expats it can simply become a question of insurance. I was introduced to a ton of people and we went all over town. Hassan even introduced me to Zinda Park which is slightly out of town and a real gem! Electronic music is not permitted so it is rather quiet and it is remarkably clean.
Inside Zinda Park.
Hassan once again showed me how much had changed and how much was happening. A metro line was under development, the mall which was under construction in 2011 now stood ready with cinema and all, people were coming together at a huge book fair and we even dropped in on Hassan’s old university which has and still does play a large role as a gathering place for intellectuals. It was good fun to catch up on the good old days when Hassan and I used to ensure smooth operations in that containers left the port and reached the engineers on time at site. However it was moreover very interesting to see Dhaka though his eyes.
That "scary place" is a popular restaurant ;)
The days went on and while it was no longer the same old Dhaka I once left, and almost all my former colleagues and friends were no longer there, I still managed to have a good time and make some new friends. We are all time travellers although we so far only know one direction. I wonder what coming home will be like after the Saga?
Louise arranged for me to speak at Nordic Club which was a lot of fun :)
Last night out.
An amazing team!! Support in any way you can! Here's the website: http://www.bdrcs.org/
I met up with the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society (BDRCS) who were all heart and massively impressive! As per the intro of this entry there is no shortage of natural disasters and BDRCS are on the case! Moreover they are kept busy with a multitude of different areas and are heavily assisted by more than ten Participating National Societies (PNS) such as the Danish Red Cross (DRC). My timing was unfortunately a bit off as I was completely outshined by Angelina Jolie who went to visit BDRCS’s field hospital in Cox’s Bazar just a few days before I reached Bangladesh. I mean really, what does she have that I do not? Just because she is a gorgeous megastar with a gazillion online followers and a huge humanitarian heart…oh wait…I guess its fair ;) Kidding aside that is the kind of disasters the BDRCS deal with: the kind that draw attention from A-list celebrities. More than a million people seeking safety have crossed the border from south western Myanmar and into Bangladesh which has not avoided the public eye.
Visiting the YRC with DRC country coordinator Mae (far left). Love them to bits!! :)
BDRCS is active on so many fronts. They are out there improving road safety together with the metropolitan police bringing discipline among the drivers raising awareness of traffic rules. They hand out vitamin capsules to children. The respond to devastating fires. They are on sight when building collapse. They educate in health and safety. They create unity. They promote neutrality. They are there for people - all kinds of people! I had a chance to sit down with the Youth Red Cross (YRC) who absolutely blew my mind! I’m always wildly impressed by volunteers and their dedication. The Youth members are equally impressive. These YRC’ers deal with dead bodies too!! As it was calmly remarked to me: “this is still a third world country and unfortunately death is common”. As such it is fairly normal for the YRC to carry dead bodies, work around them and put them into body bags. It’s not “everyday common” but far more common than it has been for me throughout my forty years on this planet. And they deal with it. And they support each other. And they are ready to do it again when needed. And that is just spectacular. Few will ever understand the importance of the movement and the reach it has globally. I hope you will consider supporting in any way you can.
That's more like it ;)
I went straight from the BDRCS to meet with Maersk (and Damco). I was in for a day because this would also be the day I left Dhaka and headed northeast towards India again. It was a SPECIAL #MaerskMoment that night with the team in Dhaka!! So many laughs!! So many selfies!! We went on a journey of both hardship and wonder. Why am I even attempting to reach every single country without flying? Well, these days there are numerous reasons not to quit and head home. Maersk has a mantra: “Constant Care”. That became a reality for me as Rashed, Shawon and Hassan guided me down to a car afterwards and then accompanied me on the long journey north towards India.
On the road my three brothers from other mothers covered all my meals, arranged for accommodation and the following morning they dropped me off at the Bangla/Indian border.
And they also made sure I tried the famous seven layor tea!
Just before sending me off I was handed an envelope. I looked inside and discovered $500 USD!!! I couldn’t accept such an amount and tried to hand it back. Hassan simply told me that it wasn’t an option. The money was from a collection they had made at the 180 personnel strong office I spoke at the night before. UNBELIEVABLE!!
I left at the Dawki/Tamabil border where immigration and customs was basic and kind. And the officer in charge said he had the authority to issue visas on arrival for $51 USD. So Bangladesh...why did I have to jump through hoops at your embassy in Delhi and pay around $120 USD?
And as such I walked across the border and made it back into India for the fourth round of four. I walked across a dusty road in an otherwise wet part of India. It was humid and hot. After forty minutes of walking I reached Dawki, which is a small border town. The taxi drivers there looked at me like hungry wolfs. Not uncommon I must say. The odds were against me. If I had been there in the morning the odds might have been in my favour. After bargaining for a while I opted to go and find lunch instead. I found a local place, ordered my food and soon found myself speaking with another customer. His name was Nachi and he was in town for work as a poll office surveyor for the upcoming elections. However he would soon be leaving to go back home to Jowai 54 km (34 mi) away. He needed to make a few stops on route but offered me to join in I wanted too?
If you think your life sucks then know that these trucks wait in line up to FORTEEN days before crossing the border. The line went far up into the mountains.
Around this part of the world it’s hard to make good time. Landslides, small mountain roads, bridges being maintained, trucks on the road...there’s plenty to keep your average speed down. I accepted and off we went leaving the taxi drivers hungry. Nachi was a great conversationalist and we quickly got along while his driver took us across a very beautiful part of India!! Nachi told me about some local legends and his family history. Stories of king’s on elephants crossing monolithic bridges and men marrying mermaids. He said it all with a smile. In Jowai he dropped me off at the taxi service area for Guwahati where I actually made some new friends and joined them in another taxi for the next three hours.
It was late before I reached Guwahati and I wouldn’t have reached it at all without the kindness of strangers turned into friends. Nobody has ever reached every country in the world on their own. Without flying it would be virtually impossible!! Thankfully I live in a world where a stranger is a friend you’ve never met before. In Guwahati I crashed for the night. It was late and I had covered a great distance under less optimal conditions. The next day I boarded an overnight bus to Imphal in Manipur. Manipur is one of the “Seven Sisters” which are the seven north eastern most states of India up towards China and Myanmar. It is again a very different part of India but I don’t even know what that means anymore. India is incredibly diversified and truly large. In more than one way I find parallels between India (the country) and Africa (the continent). It seems ridiculous given that one is a country and the other is a continent but in certain parts of India people carry heavy stuff on their heads and women carry children on their backs swept in fabric. Dancing and music is a big deal both places. Really I could keep going down that track but let’s not ;) My bus was due in Imphal at 06:00am the following day so that meant a night on board. It was super-hot when I boarded but just in case I packed my polo shirt and fleece in my carry on bag. I had no idea! Once we got up in the mountains I really began freezing!!
The following day the bus stopped some way out of Imphal. Apparently a strike was ongoing and they had blocked the road. I heard that they would likely throw stones at our bus if we came near. So we didn’t. We just sat there wasting time. No internet connectivity as the government had shut it down in the area. Just waiting. In the afternoon we rolled into Imphal after the strike had ended for the day. Apparently a bill was about to pass which would enable foreigners to come and settle across the Seven Sisters with greater ease. And apparently the foreigners they were worried about were the ones from Bangladesh and Myanmar. The border with Myanmar was just three hours away and would open at 09:00am the next day so I opted to stay the night and catch an early bus out of there.
I'm finally a meme :)
The next day I got up at 05:00am and packed my bags. I did 28 push-ups. I left the hotel. I drove off in a motor rickshaw. I arrived at the taxi station and was told that the strike was on again. Then I went to another taxi station and was told the same. I then spoke to a tour company and was told the same. Everyone told me that reaching the border that day would be impossible. Impossible? Did they know who they were talking too?!? I don’t deal in “impossible”. Not anymore. And certainly not with small stuff like that. A friendly guy on the bus the day before had given me a number to a local company called True Blue Tours and Taxis. I gave them a ring and they said they needed to check on the situation and call me back. Around 08:00 Suraj pulled up next to me and off we went. We had to stop at more than ten ATM’s on route before we found one which would give me money. We passed through several checkpoints but didn’t encounter any problems. Eventually we did hit a problem though. The road was blocked by the police.
Some of these roads were pretty adventurous!
Apparently a mountain villager had passed away after an electrical accident and there was some blame to be placed on someone or something. In any case the local tribe had blocked the road which happened to be the only road through the lush green mountains. So there we were. However Suraj wasn’t ready to turn around and head back. We gave it a few hours and then we were on the road again. The police lifted their road block after the authorities had dealt with the village and the small mountain road quickly filled up with all the vehicles which had been waiting.
In Moreh Suraj dropped me off near the border to Myanmar. We said farewell and he drove off. I walked up to the gate only to learn that there was a different gate for foreigners some 25 minutes hiking from there. The border guards did not know English so they just gestured which direction I should take. I walked off with what felt like Mt. Everest on my back. I turned left as instructed and walked to the end of the road where I found a Hindu temple. I walked around the temple and met a man who could tell me that I was now in Myanmar. Ups! Then I had to walk up a hill where I met some Indian soldiers who couldn’t care less that a westerner was carrying a heavy load on his back up a hill from Myanmar to India. And I was slightly worried that they might shoot ;) I went through their checkpoint and onward towards the ICP (Indian Check Point). On route I was offered some water by the soldiers and I thought about it for a second…would my stomach hold up? BAAAAHH!! I was too hot and thirsty so I drank it. Then while I stood there feeling like a great adventurer and probably the first westerner to cross this particular border two cyclists appeared. They were from Germany and Switzerland and had been cycling all the way (more or less). So they had like me come through Baluchistan, slept at the police station etc. The crazy mountain road I had just done with Suraj…well they did it cycling!! Well done. Their distance so far had reached 11,000km (6,835mi). I’m at nearly a quarter million kilometres (244,000km/151,615mi). I didn’t even tell them who I am or what I’m doing. I just congratulated them on getting thus far. And they never asked anyway…
As per what I feel about Bangladesh; They say you cry twice in Bangladesh: when you arrive and when you leave. That much is true!
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - Thank you.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga