Saturday, June 18, 2011

Benapole-Haridaspur Border – Horror from Dhaka to Kolkata: A Travelogue

In this post, I'll 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. Fear is always in the equation, but I always manage to conquer it everytime I head into the unknown. I've understandably 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 aren't too far removed from other crossings in Southeast Asia (Hanoi to Vientiane, Savannakhet to Thailand, Thailand to Cambodia, Phnom Penh to Saigon, and so on). I always come out unscathed. I reckon if my entry is legitimate - and my travel papers are in order, I’d be alright.


My day started as I was winding down my visit in Dhaka, the bustling capital of Bangladesh. I was happy to be leaving. I needed to get away from all the staring and the thousand questions from friendly strangers. The day before my bus departed, I visited my friend Karin (a Swiss surgical resident) in her 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 could exchange my US dollars once I am there. 

Karin walked me at the foot of an overpass. We exchanged email addresses. While making our final goodbyes, albeit cheek to cheek, a good crowd had gathered around us - surrounding us! They were gazing as we intimately exchanged our good lucks. 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 most border crossings. Carrying an amount less than what I mentioned is never a felony. After all, you have to show any legitimate immigration counter that you have adequate funds to feed yourself while visiting their country. Some quarters even require that you show your money before entry.

Dhaka's Shyamoli Station: the check-in counter. You also deposit your baggage here.


Next day, I woke up at 3AM. It wasn't because I needed to, but sleep was shallow and in between, I had a nightmare set in a war zone. If it was the shape of things to come, I didn't realize until much later. My hotel arranged for a rickshaw to take me to the bus station for a measly 5 taka ($0.06 or PhP2.70). 

I got my one-way bus ticket worth 900 taka ($12 or PhP531.50). Had I flown, it would have set me back by $90 on Biman Airlines, the Bangladeshi flag carrier. Dhaka is a mere 90 kilometers from the Benapole-Haridaspur border, then you travel further 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, changing buses at the border. That is a few hours of transit between two countries. And not too much of a wait not dissimilar to a 287 kilometer train ride 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 ushers into the provision of better service, I was told. At 6 AM, I was at the station. Estimated time of departure was at 7 AM. 

Not having had breakfast (no restaurant was open at 6), I was anxious. I proceeded to the waiting room. By 6:30 AM, I found a queue outside. Carried my backpack and queued to “check in”; deposited my bag at the storage closet then went through a door that lead to the other side of the building. The bus was there, gleaming in red, with white and yellow stripes. I was the first one inside. My seat was a couple of rows from the back.


It didn't take long for the bus to fill up. We were handed a 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 was pleased sitting on a comfortable aisle seat, with good AC inside the fresh-smelling bus. This should be painless, I thought. 

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.


Sometime that morning, we arrived at a port. I was told this was a tributary that drains directly to the Bay of Bengal. I was thrilled! Before this moment, the bay was nothing but an iconic body of water I only read in books or watch in documentary shows, much like the Mekong, the Thames or the Seine. 

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.


During this bay crossing, I was tempted to get off the bus. A few seconds later, Junaid stood up and invited me out of the bus. With little trepidation, I did. But scenarios were playing in my head: what if he pushed me off the ferry? Silly me. 

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.

Bay of Bengal


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  followed Junaid who dictated what I should do. Signs were in Bangla characters. When it was time to line-up at a counter that looked like a makeshift shop selling candies (first photo above), Junaid asked for my passport and immigration papers for my stamping out of the Bangladesh. Piece of cake. We got back to our bus and drove on until we reached what might as well be a proverbial war-zone! Heavy artillery, thick border walls, soldiers in full battle gear. I was transported back to my nightmare. This was Haridaspur!


I wasn't sure what to do. Junaid gave my passport back, and I was suddenly on my own. He was nowhere in sight. The procedures were again not written in English, nor were there helpful officials who would guide you through the process. This was clearly a place not meant for leisure tourism. I was lost. 

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.


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 with 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! 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?


I was turned away. I hurriedly zipped my backpack, then went out of the building! My body was shaking. My bus had been waiting outside. Five feet away from my bus, three soldiers carrying AK47's shouted at me. More alarmingly, they pointed their guns at me - and I just froze. Here I was with my backpack, walking towards my bus! Once again, the bus conductor intervened. He was fast becoming my savior. I joined my bus-mates clearly shaken. I headed back to my seat, I saw Junaid on his!

One of the two-step Benapole immigration counters. The other one is seen below.


Before resuming our trip, an 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 secretly sneaking $100 bill on the soldier’s hand. With the money pocketed, we heaved a sigh of relief. But 10 minutes later, another soldier came in and ordered the 5 people seated behind me – as well as the guy who bribed the other soldier - to get off the bus. And off we went! 

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?

Everyone fell silent once we traveled onward. Junaid constantly played songs from the movie Yuvraj (a CD that I've since enjoyed). We exchanged email addresses, swapped stories, and a bottle of water spilled on Junaid's bag. Oopps! Honestly, I was still reeling from the border experience.


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 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:


Now back to my journey to Kolkata: The bus made a stopover at 6 PM. Junaid lead me to a shop that sold food, nothing heavy. He called it “samosa”, a potato stuffed pastry common in the Indian subcontinent. I just followed 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, right? It’s a land of possibilities as much as any other societies.

Samosa with chutney

We finally reached Kolkata's bus depot in the dark of night - at 8 PM. What should have been an easy transit unravelled like 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 bother with my list-making, I got lazy because I knew 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’ accommodation conglomerates.

It was rare sharing a room with a stranger who didn't want to accept any amount of money nor share expenses for a cab or a room. What do I do with my precious 300 rupees? More importantly, what did I do to get me so lucky?

After a blood-curdling experience at the border from hell, I was being rewarded with having a generous friend.

This was Indian hospitality first-hand!

Horror, Harassment and Hospitality all in a day's journey!

This is the Eye in the Sky!

Our room in Afreen International Hotel along Marquis Street.

Kolkata at night

Kolkata's Howrah Bridge

Human-powered rickshaw, a popular sight in Kolkata.

Map of our journey from Dhaka to Kolkata, encircling the passage through this narrow part of the Bay of Bengal.


Twin said...

Be safe always!

eye in the sky said...

I'm always careful, Rics. I take risks but still take the necessary precautions. Thanks.

Sid said...

you got the distances wrong. kolkata-benapole is 90km and benapole-dhaka is around 320km :)

eye in the sky said...

Hmmmm. Will double check my notes, but I think you're right. Must have mixed up my numbers. Corrected accordingly. Thanks, Sid.

Anonymous said...

You know nothing clearly while writing a travel story. very funny. who told you that's the bay of bengal? who told you about the distance? That was not evern lied to the immigration officer. before saying them corrupt you should know about the process. it's not your place and you are not in your drawing room. do you have any idea about the culture of asia? uff.. how did you want her to say goodbye...??

eye in the sky said...

What an idiot!

1st - It is an account of MY experience. That is how it happened! How is it that you seem to know what transpired more than I did! This is not some fictional drama - it was REAL! Not an iota of idea there was fictional. If you didn't like any of it, LIVE WITH IT - IT HAPPENED! Who the fuck cares if you didn't like my writing. This is MY JOURNAL! I don't give a hoot if Queen Elizabeth or Aishwarya Rai hates it!

2. Everyone on the bus told me it was the tributary to the Bay of Bengal - and let me start with it being referenced by my dear "Lonely Planet", the bus assistant, and my Kashmiri friend Junaid who was a Medical Student from Bangladesh - and he commutes this border very very often, every 3 months or so during his whole medical education. How long is that - 10 years?

3. What do I care if that's not even Samucha. I'd gag on your assumptions that I care what you THINK. LOL

4. If that practice is NOT corrupt, what term do you call it? Respectable? Righteous? If you call that a LAUDABLE GOVERNMENT SYSTEM, then I am doubting your sanity; your ability to discern what's right and wrong! Asking me to hand over MY WHOLE CASH is a clear case of CORRUPTION! If you're not an IDIOT, then I am sure you KNOW that having 200 rupees with me is NOT ILLEGAL! "It is illegal NOT to declare money equal to or in excess of $10,000 or its equivalent in local currency!" THAT is the law - PLEASE DO YOUR SELF A FAVOR AND REMEMBER THAT to keep yourself from being absolutely IGNORANT about customs law, especially where it involves tourists! I did not have THAT much - $10,000 - money with me. I was going to India, not Europe!

5. It happened to me! IT IS MY PLACE TO SAY THEY ARE CORRUPT based on my experience! I AM ASIAN, you twat! Southeast Asia is where I live - and if that isn't Asia, then you must live in Saturn, Moron!

6. The culture of Asia is supposedly free of corruption. People do not willfully take other people's money. It is clear it's you who don't know anything about it. It is clear that "STEALING" is acceptable to you. And I pity you!

7. A friend's goodbye is intimate - NOT surrounded by a hundred people GAWKING at us! This is not some bad Bollywood film where everyone minds other people's business. In a civilized world, people are supposed to mind THEIR OWN BUSINESS! And saying goodbye to MY FRIEND is not a hundred Bangladeshis staring closely and surrounding us with bated breath - as though waiting for some A.R. Rahman song to play!

8. GROW a BRAIN. THIS IS MY BLOG; this is a recollection of how my travels happened.

9. What's "uff"... are you a dog? That sounds like the whimper of an imbecile!

eye in the sky said...

And yeah:

"before saying them corrupt you should know about the process"

Is getting pointed a firearm "part of the process" for a legitimate tourist getting into a country? Or is that how you believe what "hospitality" is like? No one has ever pointed a gun at me - ever! - until then! It isn't the most ecstatic of sensations. I am hoping someone points a gun at you so you will experience bliss.

When I was getting back inside my BUS at the border, a soldier stopped and pointed a GUN at me! The bus conductor had to run from behind me, shouted at him and stopped him!

Am I supposed to "smile" graciously because:

1. someone pointed a gun at me
2. someone asked me to give them all my cash
3. someone told me that having 200 rupees as illegal - when the law says it isn't
4. i saw people handing out $100 bribes to a soldier who readily accepted it.

Which part of that experience sounds pleasant and pleasurable to you?

I just hate it when dumb pricks with the brain of a paramecium comment here with no heed for logic!

I was the aggrieved party here! Plant that in your Bangladeshi mentality! Does living in Dhaka limit your capacity to discern that when things are wrong, they have to be told?