In this post, I will retrace my protracted and treacherous border crossing from Dhaka (capital of Bangladesh) to Kolkata (West Bengal’s most popular city in India), an adventure that ushered me into the realm of antipathy and dread on my way to “Incredible India” some 2 ½ years ago. I’ve since returned three times to scour through some of the most fascinating, albeit mystical sights on earth.
I face every entry into new places with a degree of trepidation, overland border crossings particularly. I am always scared, but I also manage to conquer my fears by heading into the unknown. I’ve naturally read enough about the Benapole-Haridaspur border, including its notoriety – the presence of corrupt border officials from either side of the border. But hey, these stories are redundant from the other crossings in Southeast Asia (Hanoi to Vientiane, Savannakhet to Thailand, Thailand to Cambodia, Phnom Penh to Saigon, and so on). And I always come out unscathed. I reckon if my entry is legitimate - and my travel papers are in order, I’d be alright.
A STANDING-ROOM-ONLY GOODBYE
My day started as I winded down my visit in Dhaka, the bustling capital of Bangladesh. I was happy to be leaving, as I needed to get away from all the staring and the thousand questions from friendly strangers. The day before my bus departs, I went to my friend Karin’s (a Swiss surgical resident) guesthouse to rid myself of some taka (Bangladesh’s money) in exchange of her Indian rupees. I didn’t need a lot - just some spare change for when I’d need to buy food or drink on my way to Kolkata. I can exchange my US dollars once I am there. Karin walked me at the foot of an overpass and we exchanged email addresses. Just before we made our final goodbye (cheek to cheek pleasantries), a good crowd had gathered around us - surrounding us! Gazing as we intimately bade each other goodbye. It was hilarious. Bangladeshis don’t have qualms showing their curiosity. Most societies that I know content themselves by stealing glances, but in this intense capital, Karin and I were a circus show, replete with a full circle of crowd gathering around us! I half expected a round of applause.
That said, I had 300 Indian rupees in my pocket. That’s a measly US $6.70, a speck from the declarable amount of $10,000 in US money or its equivalent in local currency. This rule is quite universal in every border crossing. Carrying an amount less than what I mentioned is never a felony because you have to show any legitimate immigration counter that you indeed have the means to feed yourself while visiting their country. Some quarters even require that you show your money before entry.
Next day, I was awake as early as 3AM. I had a nightmare set in a war zone. Was it the shape of things to come? My hotel arranged a rickshaw to take me to the bus station for a measly 5 taka ($0.06 or PhP2.70). I held on to my one-way bus ticket worth 900 taka ($12 or PhP531.50). Had I flown, it would have cost me $90 through Biman Airlines, Bangladesh’s flag carrier. Dhaka is a mere 90 kilometers from the Benapole-Haridaspur border, then you have to further travel west - 320 kilometers from the Haridaspur border onward to Kolkata. With a distance covering 410 kilometers, most people use the long-distance A/C bus services that run between Dhaka and Kolkata and vice versa, with a change of bus at the border. That is a few hours between two countries. And not too much of a wait as the 287 kilometer train travel between Paris and Luxembourg.
My bus was the Shyamoli-BRTC Bus. Shyamoli is a well run private company while BRTC is government-run. This collaboration provides better service, I was told. I reached the station at 6AM. We were to leave at 7AM. Not having had my breakfast (no restaurant was open at 6), I was anxious. I proceeded to the waiting room. By 6:30AM, I noticed a queue outside. Carried my backpack and joined the queue that led to a counter where you were supposed to “check in” and deposit the bags at the bus' storage closet. After checking in, we were nudged through a door that exited at the other side of the building. My bus was there, gleaming in red, in yellow stripe. I was curiously the first one inside. My seat was a couple of rows from the back.
Once the bus was full, we were handed our meal box that contained 2 pieces of roti (wheat-based flat bread), dahl (a thick curried stew of dried lentils, peas or beans that's a basic culinary item in the Indian subcontinent), a banana and a bottle of water. I had an aisle seat which was comfortable; AC was working well. The bus smelled clean too. This would be painless, I thought. Right across me was a tall young guy who kept stealing glances at me. I’d noticed him early on from the queue because he was a head taller than most. Once on our way (the bus left at 7:30AM), the bus conductor started distributing Immigration Forms that we needed to fill up: one for our exit pass at Benapole (the Bangladeshi border) and another for the entry pass into Haridaspur (the Indian border). Benapole-Haridaspur is a popular border crossing, accommodating thousands of trans-country students, businessmen and some tourists. Aside from the Indian tourists (couldn’t really tell the difference from the Bangladeshis), I was the lone Asian. No Caucasians were in sight either.
We were plying Jessore Road. I finally opened my meal box at 10:15AM. I carefully and slowly filled up my immigration forms. Have you tried writing on a moving vehicle? I didn’t want erasures because it might call attention on me, nor did I want to have to ask for another blank form. Little did I know that the guy beside me was paying close attention. He had great eyesight for he actually read through my profession and started chatting me up! His name is Junaid who ushered me through India 101. He hails from Kashmir but has studied Medicine in Chittagong (east of Bangladesh). He was coming home. It was nice to have someone to talk to, and he was extra accommodating. I didn’t want to bother him with so many questions. But I was gravely aware of the risky possibilities on acquaintance with strangers.
WORLD'S LARGEST BAY
Sometime that morning, we reached a port. I was told this was the Bay of Bengal. I was thrilled! This was a body of water that, before now, has only been an iconic entity that I read about in books, much like the Mekong, the Thames or the Seine. The bus drove into a ferry and we floated along, crossing this massive expanse of seemingly placid waters. I have read countless articles about raging storms in this piece of tranquility. The Bay of Bengal is the largest bay in the world, forming the northeastern part of the Indian Ocean (see map below). It occupies an area of about 2 million square kilometers and is the drainage to some of the most influential bodies of water in the region: Brahmaputra, Padma, Jamuna, Cauvery, and even Ayeyarwady that I’ve encountered in Myanmar. This particular strip of the bay is narrow as it flows down south into its bigger expanse.
OFF THE FERRY
While our ferry was crossing the bay, I wanted to get off the bus. After a few seconds, Junaid stood up and motioned that I should join him. With much apprehension, I did. Truth to tell, scenarios were playing on my mind: what if he pushed me off the ferry? Haha. These days, I’d remind him of this peculiar meeting, and we frequently laugh about it. The bay looked peaceful, but sadly, charmless and without character. There wasn’t anything much in this crossing that I could talk about. There were a few boats moving across the bay, and the thin strips of land (or isle) nearby were mostly flat and deserted. We went to a canteen to buy more bottles of water, but Junaid wouldn’t accept my money. The ferry reached the other side in 30 minutes, and we were back on our seats. We reached Benapole at 2PM – that’s a good 6 ½ hours from Dhaka. Ninety kilometers for 6 hours? Something’s amiss.
STAMPING OUT, STAMPING IN
The succeeding events were a blur. We got off our bus upon reaching Benapole, and since it was a free-for-all immigration system, I just followed Junaid who dictated what I should do. Signs were in Bangla characters. When it was time to queue at a small counter that looked like one of the stores selling candies (first photo above), Junaid took my passport and immigration papers for our stamping out of the country. Piece of cake. We got back to our bus until we reached a proverbial war-zone! Heavy artillery, thick border walls, military personnel in full battle gear. I remembered the nightmare I had. This was Haridaspur!
I wasn’t sure what to do. Junaid gave my passport back, and I was suddenly on my own. The procedures were again not written in English, nor were there officials who could guide you through the process. I was lost. Junaid was nowhere in sight. It was the bus conductor intermittently guiding me, but other than that, I was on my own. I followed the movement of the crowd. Sometime in this chaotic mess, the conductor told me, “Your friend in trouble!” Up to this day, I don’t exactly know what happened, and I didn’t want to dwell on something close to traumatic. My passport was inspected (something that took forever). The officials were taking their sweet time, and I was anxious.
WHERE CARRYING LOCAL MONEY WAS AN OFFENSE
At the next room, there was another counter we had to submit ourselves to. The uniformed officer, wearing a thick bush of mustache and speaking in a gruff unwelcoming voice, took a long look at me. I was ordered to open my backpack. They inspected every nook and cranny then asked, “You have any Indian money?” “Yes,” I replied. I had 300 Indian rupees – the one I exchanged from my friend. “But you’re not supposed to carry Indian money. It's illegal,” accused the dimwit who thought I was born yesterday. He wanted to confiscate my 300 rupees! He then asked me, “Where is your money bag?” My wallet? I’d be an idiot if I gave him my dollar stash! Was I to travel all over India penniless? I said, I don’t have enough money because I was supposed to withdraw from an ATM once in Kolkata! Had it been a different immigration counter, they’d have thrown me out because tourists are supposed to have “show money” – as proof that you can afford this trip! But like a magic spell, all the intrusive inspection and barrage of spine-tingling questions came to a sudden halt! The bus conductor whispered something to the officer!
PLAYING WITH GUNS AT THE WAR ZONE
And I was turned away – I zipped my backpack as fast as I could, then went out of the building! My bus was waiting outside. Five feet away from the door, three soldiers carrying armalite shouted at me. More alarming was, they pointed their guns at me - and I just froze. Here I was with my backpack, walking towards my bus! But once again, the bus conductor was behind me. He once again intervened and talked to them. I joined my bus-mates clearly shaken (and stirred!) Junaid was also back in his seat!
BRIBERY AND DISAPPEARANCE
Before finally leaving, another armed guard went up our bus and individually checked us. It was unnerving. When he was about to leave, I noticed the guy seated in front of me sneak $100 bill into the soldier’s hand. He pocketed the money. Ten minutes later, another soldier came in and ordered 5 people seated behind me – as well as the guy who bribed the other soldier to get off the bus. And off we went! I seriously thought this scenario only happened in places like Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan! To this day, I still wonder what happened to my bus mates. I was glad I looked Asian or I’d have been picked to get off the bus by mere proximity to my bus mates. Who knows?
There was a collective sigh of relief as we snaked through the highway. Junaid was constantly playing songs from the movie Yuvraj (a CD that I’ve since bought and enjoyed). We exchanged email addresses and swapped stories, but I was still reeling from the experience.
A FRIEND'S EXPERIENCE AT THE BORDER
Karin, my Swiss friend, wrote about her eventful adventure in Bangladesh: “On the way to Chittagong, my bus hit a cyclist who was fatally wounded. Then a few hours from the place, the bus broke down. What a pleasure!” I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic. Karin had to eventually go back to India overland instead of taking the plane as we discussed. All of her credit cards were declined “because they were not issued in Bangladesh or India” thus she had limited finances. She wrote, and I quote: “Like you I didn’t have this change of route permit...and it was such a hassle. I had to speak with about 4 important people. They all asked me really strange questions, like what my favorite food was in Bangladesh, what hobbies do I have, etc. Then there’s the questions about money. Finally I bribed them with different Swiss coins that one of them collected. Haha. What a joke!” My horror story was in Haridaspur. Hers was in Benapole! Now read this link below for a similar experience by an Ausie traveler: http://www.travelpod.com/travel-blog-entries/will/no_end_in_sight/1141239600/tpod.html
Corollary to that is this news report sometime 2003: http://www.thewe.cc/weplanet/news/asia/bangladesh/illegal_travellers_due_to_harassment_of_custom_officials.htm
SAMOSA AND POSSIBILITIES
Now back to my journey to Kolkata, the bus made a stopover at around 6PM. Junaid led me to a little shop that sold food, nothing heavy. My friend called it “samosa”, a potato stuffed pastry common in the Indian subcontinent. I just followed my friend and told him that I wasn’t into spicy things – and basically, I was in trouble since I am really in the land of spice and chili! That wasn’t a complaint. I somehow thought that there’d be food for people like me. Anything is possible in India – or so it seems. It’s a land of possibilities as much as any other societies.
We finally reached a bus depot in the dark of night. It was 8 PM. What should have been an easy transit ended as a harrowing tale of heart-pounding suspense thriller on corruption and harassment! Why isn't the Indian government doing something about this?
I claimed by baggage while Junaid made himself commander of the pack. I was just glad for the company while I was still a bit dazed from the intrusive border crossing. I didn’t even think of consulting my list, I was being lazy because I had someone who started taking in charge. Junaid felt I was his personal visitor when in reality, I just met him that day. We took a pre-paid taxi to Sudder Street where the huge concentration of backpackers’ hotels conglomerate.
For the rare time during my travels, I shared a room with a stranger who didn’t want to accept any form of money even as a share to a cab or a hotel room. And I couldn’t even spend any fraction of my precious 300 rupees for a tsai. What did I do that got me so lucky?
After a blood-curdling scenario at the border from hell, I was being rewarded with having a good friend.
This was Indian hospitality first-hand!
Horror, Harassment and Hospitality all in a day's journey!
This is the Eye in the Sky!
Map of our journey from Dhaka to Kolkata, encircling the passage through this narrow part of the Bay of Bengal.