Here is John's first email about his adventure in reaching the Bangladesh school...............
Here is the tale of our adventures in getting to our destination.
In short, we have arrived safely at our final destination, a school, received a wonderful welcome and we are embarrassed about the standard of our accommodation and care. I feel very privileged to be here. Here are the details.
In Dhaka we stayed at the Viator Guest House, which is run for Christians by people from Norway. We were very comfortable there, though it is a lot more spartan than our hotel in Bangkok.
We were picked up in vans and taken to the station – quite an unimpressive place, to catch our train. This station is the terminal for our train, reputably the best train in Bangladesh (it was built here for the Indian Government, but when they couldn't pay, so the Bangladesh Government pressed it into service for themselves.) Unfortunately it hadn't returned from its all night journey from Patibatpur and beyond yet. It was running 90 minutes late. When it arrived it had to be cleaned, refuelled, etc so we got away about two hours late.
However, waiting for the train was not a dull experience.
- To see the morning peak hour trains arriving and then continuing into the city was entertaining. All had people sitting or sleeping or even preparing large pots of food on the carriage roofs. I have some amazing video!
- People at he station just wanted to come up to us , and when they built up the courage they would talk to us in English. They would bring heir children to have them photographed and ask no more than to see their photo on the screen.
- The policeman assigned to the station, singled me out for a conversation, after he had ordered the beggars to go away. He told me that he had been part of the UN peace keeping force in the Congo(?) with Australian , British and Canadian police.
- When he moved on a gentleman with orange died hair cautiously came up and began a conversation in near perfect English. He was an electrical engineer in charge of the signalling on the railways. He was very worried about his daughter in Year 11 who was spending too much time watching TV and not enough time studying. He showed me the thick text book he had just bought for her. Then he invited me down to see the signalling operations at the station. I let the others know where I was going and nervously followed him down the platform to a room where two men ere working on commuters and wind up telephones controlling the local signalling. I took some photos. My friend then brought in and introduced me to the station master. I am told that I brought great honour to these people by visiting them. I also have a standing invitation to visit the signalling engineer, whenever I am at the station.
- A policeman armed with a very long rifle came walking down the line and a group of goats came, cleaned up some rubbish in the line before jumping up onto the platform to search for more delicacies.
- There was a nice quite man on the platform who eventually plucked up the courage to ask me for some money. I didn't have anything suitable to give him, unfortunately. A little while later I heard him wailing very loudly as a different police officer was going through his things. A crowd of locals gathered around him. It was a confronting sight, but I could not understand what was going on because don't understand the language. It seemed that he was desperate that the police officer did not take anything from him, because he needed what he had to survive.
As you can see, waiting for the train was not boring.
- The train journey.
Travelling First Class on the train was a wonderful experience. The air conditioning was great, supplemented by passenger controlled fans mounted on the walls. We enjoyed the wonderful service of the steward, dressed in his white uniform, delivering cups of a dark sweet tea. Delicious! The train runs on broad gauge (5 foot 3 inches between the rails) so it was very comfortable. The price of $10 Australian suited the pocket too. Australian money goes a long way here with $A1 = 72 Tacca.
We had to travel slowly at first because so many people are walking or resting on the railway lines. I even saw a mother doing her daughters hair in the middle of the tracks.
The scenery was fantastic. We saw huge areas of flooded land, sometimes as far as the eye could see. The train at times was on a narrow embankment just above he flood waters, just like the approach to Gosford, on the train, only Brisbane waters there is only a puddle compared to what we saw at times. All that flooded land was growing rice.
We crossed the Brahmaputra River (yes it has another name in Bangladesh) very slowly on a four and a half kilometre road/railway bridge.The train did no more than 10kmh as the bridge has several large cracks in it, so one has to proceed carefully. The river was a raging torrent below. If the bridge gave way, we would have been history. (PS We are flying home, so this is our only trip across the bridge.)
On the other side there were lots of rice fields interspersed with Sugar cane and bananas.
Then there was a bit of excitement. The train line runs along the Indian / Bangladesh border for a way. I don't know why, but our train stopped for a while there, even though it was not at a station. Armed Bangladesh border police were lined up along the track to guard our train. There were a large crowd of Indian villagers waiting and watching our train. We noticed a young Indian woman standing there in her yellow Sari, that was obviously covering a large amount of gear. Those in the know on the train told us that she was a smuggler. When our train began to move the woman made her dash and got onto the train. Another woman tried but failed. Shortly three border police officers with very large rifles came through trhe train looking for her. We did not see what happened.
It was not long after that, that night fell. We arrived at Parbatipur at about ten past seven, to a tremendous welcome.
Where we had to get off the platform was barely two metres wide. The platform was packed with people. (Unbeknown by me at this stage, they were there to welcome us.) They took our luggage and I helped them stack it on the platform, trying to keep enough room for other passengers to get through. It was dark so it was hard to see where our bags went. However, they started to disappear as the welcome party put our 20kg bags on their heads and walked off with them, up the unlit railway steps to the over-bridge. They loaded them into a van. We were each presented with possies of flowers.
Then we were loaded onto the school's Vangaries. (I have no idea how to spell it, but basically it is a push bike with a large wooded platform at the back , big enough to hold four people.) You sit on the platform and dangle your legs over the side. These guys rode us the 4 km or so down narrow congested roads, avoiding pedestrians, motor bikes, buses and trucks that just blast their horns and weave through. We just get to ring our bell to tell pedestrians to get out of the way. Our journey was filmed by a teacher from the school fom a moror bike driven by another staff member. Fortunately we all made it to our accommodation safely and without incident. It was a really great experience.
Our accommodation is lovely. We are living on the first floor of the head master's house. I have a lovely room which is fan cooled and has an ensuite and a balcony that overlooks the main road and then extends to a view of rice fields. We have a dining room and kitchen on our level, where the housemaid cooks our meals and washes our clothes. A security guard sits at the front gate all night. In fact, our accommodation is noticeably better than the head masters on the lower level, which is a sign of just how much they value us coming here … but it is a bit embarrassing. Because this is Bangladesh, there is no hot water,(as in over 80% of the world) but the “cold” water is of a very acceptable temperature. I am sleeping here very well, despite the heat. In fact,I am sleeping here better than I do at home.
A bus picked us up to take us to the school for a stunning and tear jerking reception. We were met at the gates (walking in) by students who showered us with flowers, singing a welcome song and presenting us with cards they had made to welcome us. We then had to walk between rows of students who gave us more and more flowers and cards. When we finally made it to the end, we were seated and had a student behind each of us bearing large branches of leaves, to shelter us from the sun. There staff washed our feet, gave us a necklace of flowers (which indicates that we were important guests) fed us some lovely sweet food, before we went to a welcome assembly on the school verandah. Students from each year (Kindergarten to Year 6) either sang or danced for us. Lets just say that I took a lot of video footage today. It was very humbling that they are so desperate to have our help.
As we rode back to our accommodation, on the school vangaries, I noticed a t\small truck coming the other way. Dad was in the cabin driving, while he had 3 cows, his wife and their child in the tray! It is a different world.
In conclusion, this land is a geographer's paradise and I am so glad to be here. Wait until you see the pictures!
This happy mob of our members can hardly wait to see John's pictures and videos of Bangladesh!