The road from Dhaka to Chittagong, Bangladesh’s second largest city, is notoriously dangerous because of all the road accidents that happen here. So to get from Srimangal to Chittagong, I decided to take the train - safe, comfortable and a journey of approximately 7 hours.
It happened to become a train journey I will not easily forget.
The staff of the cottage I was staying at in Srimangar told me I would have to leave for the train station at 22:00 hours. I asked them why I had to leave so early as it was a 15-minute rickshaw drive to the station, and the train would only depart at 23:30 hours. They insisted I should not leave after 22:00 hours. Reasons why remained vague.
So a few minutes before 22:00 I rocked up with my luggage - ready to go. But the rickshaw driver was hesitant. He didn’t wanted to go with just me. He insisted that the staff of the cottage would join as well and made sure the rickshaw was crammed with his guy friends before taking off.
Only when we arrived at the station, they told me why: 10 days earlier, several people got robbed on a dark stretch on the way to the station. Some thugs had placed a tree on the road to make their vehicle slow down and they had taken money, mobile phones and jewellery. They were never caught.
Thanks for giving me the heads up before we took off people!
But all was fine on our route and I noticed that there were several places where policemen were keeping an eye on things so to be honest, I wasn’t worried or scared at all.
When the train finally arrived, I approached a train official to ask him which carriage I was in - since all signs were in Bangla so I couldn’t read any of it. The official quickly called in a police officer, who, while carrying a shotgun, escorted me all the way to the right seat in the right carriage.
To get there, he pushed people out of our way, shouting insults at them and when we reached the correct seat, he kicked off the man who was sleeping on my bench. The officer gave me a big smile as he’d succesfully cleared the way for me but I was so embarrassed I wanted to melt into a puddle.
I quickly put my luggage in the overhead storage and sat down. Everybody was staring at me (which happened pretty much wherever I went in Bangladesh but it’s something I will probably never get used to).
Since there hadn’t been any first class tickets available (you know - with those nice, soft, reclining seats), I had a ticket for the lower class. Two-seat, rock hard benches, dirty floors, broken windows and many people without seat tickets standing in the aisle. This was going to be a long, long night.
The Lady in Red
The train only just started to move from Srimangal’s train station, or a woman entered the carriage - wearing a bright red sari. But this was no ordinary woman. With my 1,68 meters I have felt like a giant in Bangladesh, generally being taller than most men and over a head taller than the Bangladeshi women.
The women in red however, was gigantic.
She started to make her way through the carriage, all the while receiving money from the train passengers. Especially the men were all smiling and giggling around her and generally seemed quite amused. At first I thought she was some sort of prostitute, but I couldn’t believe that to be the case. And then she reached my bench.
She was leaning towards me and was literally towering over me like some bloody tower of Pisa. She was demanding something in Bangla with a loud voice, while holding her hand in front of my nose. Although I was pretty convinced she was demanding money, I was too stunned to react.
Just that size of her hands! They were at least double the size of my own hands. I hesitated and was unsure what to do. In the meantime, she was pushing her -also quite enormous- bare, fat belly almost in face. If she’d come any closer, I’m sure she would have crushed me.
I looked her in the eye and realised she meant business, so I quickly handed her a 10 Taka note. She took the note, held it against my forehead - and moved on. Thank goodness. My face must have been a mix of utter shock and confusion, because the other train passengers all gave me reassuring smiles and head wiggles.
Whatever that was, I felt like I just got mugged by a woman.
Only much later, when I found a Bangladeshi who spoke English and explained the situation, he told me (after much laughter and amusement) that she was transgender. Even though by Bangladeshi law, transgenders have equal rights, they won’t be given any jobs. So this is their way of surviving, and it is supported by the community. Aaaaah.
The Holy Man
The lady in red had only just moved on, or another character had entered the carriage. He was coming from behind me though, and I was alerted to his presence by my fellow travellers. They all stared in the direction of some violent shouting. I turned around to see what was coming our way this time.
It was a tiny, shrunken and old holy man -a baba-, with barely any clothes on and long dreadlocks wrapped together in a messy bun on the top of his head.
But the sounds that came out of that fragile, tiny body - they were from somewhere else! It was pretty clear that he wanted money too, and his way of getting it was just shouting at people, repeating the same word - over and over again.
I had a few minutes to come up with a strategy to deal with this dude - and the best I came up with was pretending to be asleep. I know - so lame! But I figured, him being a holy man, he would most likely not touch or shake me, so it could work.
I heard him stop at my bench and by the sounds of it, directing his full blow fury on me. Keep you eyes shut - just keep your eyes shut. In what felt like forever, the man wouldn’t leave and sounded more and more frustrated by the fact I just wouldn’t wake up by his screaming.
Finally he left, and with one eye I peeked to see whether he was really gone. The people opposite me and on the other end of the aisle had witnessed my little act and so shortly after the lady-in-red affair their smiles grew even bigger.
They looked at me with pitying eyes and gentle smiles as if trying to say: “sorry you had to go through this, but well done girl!” By this time I was on high alert and ready for the next crazy person entering the carriage. But besides the “normal” soft drinks, popcorn, tea and crisps vendors that would pass around every 10 minutes or so - it remained quiet.
I started to nod off a little but woke up each time as my sleeping head would bang itself against a steel edge of the window. Ouch. It should come as no surprise that I didn’t sleep a wink that entire journey and when the train finally rolled into Chittagong station at 06:00 in the morning, I felt like I got hit by a bus. Or run over by a train to stay on-topic.
Stinky and tired I got off the train, making my way through the crowds. It took another 20 minutes and a whole lot of confusion (I blame it on the little sleep) before I finally figured out I got off at the wrong station.
Chittagong has an old train station and a new train station, and to catch my next transport to the town of Banderban, I should have gotten off at the new train station. I rode the train all the way to the old station. Obviously.
By the time I had fixed that mistake and had traveled another 2 hours to Banderban, I had gone 26 hours without sleep and pretty much collapsed in a pretty hillside cottage overlooking the hilly jungle of Banderban.
Riding the night train in Bangladesh - CHECK.
NOTE: Even though I was brave enough to face the lady in red and the holy man - taking my camera out to snap a little picture of them was unfortunately way too far out..
Have you ever been on a bizarre train ride? Leave a comment!