Right across me was a tall young guy who kept stealing glances. I’d noticed him earlier from the queue because he was a head taller than most. Once on our way (the bus left at 7:30 AM), the bus conductor started distributing Immigration Forms that we had to fill up: one for our exit pass at Benapole (the Bangladeshi border) and another for the entry pass to 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 in the vehicle. No Caucasians were in sight either.
We were plying along Jessore Road when I decided to open my meal box. It was 10:15 AM. The short time I was sitting there had created an atmosphere of comfort. I carefully and slowly completed my immigration forms. Have you tried writing on a moving vehicle? I didn't want erasures because it might call unnecessary attention on me. Besides, I wasn't sure they'd give me another form without having to pay for it. Little did I realize 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 was Junaid who then diligently ushered me into his India; the India outside travel books. He hails from Kashmir but had been studying Medicine in Chittagong (east of Bangladesh). He was visiting coming home. For a change, it was nice to have someone to talk to. What's interesting was how hospitable he was, curiously taking me in like the unexpected guest that came through the backdoor. I didn't want to bother him with too many questions lest I wear out my welcome. Moreover, I was acutely aware of the contentious possibilities of meeting strangers in a land so far away from home.
WORLD'S LARGEST BAY
The bus drove into a ferry and we floated westward, crossing this massive expanse of this 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 Myanmar's Ayeyarwady which I've gotten closely acquainted with in Bagan. This particular strip of the bay was narrow as it flowed south.
These days, I’d remind him of our serendipitous meeting while we laugh about it. The bay looked peaceful, but sadly, charmless and without character. There wasn't anything in this crossing that I could talk about. There were a few boats across the bay, and the thin strips of land (or isle) nearby were mostly flat and deserted. We bought bottles of water from a shop, but Junaid wouldn't accept my money. We went back to our seats 30 minutes later. At 2 PM, we reached Benapole – it had been 6 ½ hours from Dhaka. Ninety kilometers for 6 hours? Something’s amiss.
STAMPING OUT AND IN
A few seconds thereafter, I caught the bus conductor who would point me to desks. Mostly, 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!” Huh? Up to this day, I never knew what happened, and I didn't want to dwell on something close to traumatic. I found another counter that looked like an immigration counter. My passport was scrutinized, and this took forever. I was anxious.
“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! Was I to travel all over India penniless? I said, I don’t have enough money because I planned on withdrawing from an ATM 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 this was different! He wanted me to hand him my wallet. I don't have plans of giving it to him.
Then like magic, without batting an eyelash, all the intrusive inspection and inquisition suddenly halted! But not before I noticed my bus conductor whispering to the officer's ears.What was going on here?
This scenario happens in places like Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan, or so I thought! To this day, I still wonder what became of the men who were left behind. I was glad I looked Asian or I’d probably get picked to get off the bus by mere proximity to my bus mates. Who knew?
A FRIEND SHARES HER BORDER EXPERIENCE
“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 like 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:
Map of our journey from Dhaka to Kolkata, encircling the passage through this narrow part of the Bay of Bengal.