Thursday, June 13, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 8

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


Kurigram to Dhaka by Night
by Rilla Norslund

Have you ever experienced the strange, drunken feeling of lying down, alive and in one piece after a long and dangerous drive in the dark? You can’t shake off that flying sensation, like you’re a piece of debris from some intergalactic collision hurtling through space at astonishing speed. Trying to center gravity, you slip a foot over the edge of the bed onto the cool floor, before allowing sleep and flickering dreams to embrace you and carry you to blessed oblivion.

The afternoon starts calmly enough, or as calm as can be expected for a foreigner visiting farmers in a remote corner of Bangladesh. In distant Kurigram any non-native has movie star status, unsurprising as the only foreigners most people encounter are on a screen. Perhaps they hope I will break into Bollywood-style singing or weeping, but they seem content enough to listen to politely translated remarks about future project plans. Visiting the group’s activities, I am accompanied not only by the leaders and local officials, but by half the village adults and all children old enough to walk, with toddlers hanging on the hips of older siblings.

We move in bright sweating procession, around rice paddies and trial plots, admire snug eggs under squawking hens, and discuss de-worming of the sharp-angled cattle. At every stop children gather tightly around in jump-up-and-down excitement and are chased away by impatient, important officials, but the attraction is just too strong and they return like metal fragments to a magnet.

Into this happy humid scene bursts Driver Ali, cool from the project vehicle’s air-conditioned interior, chest-swelled with the importance of car-radio news.

“There’s Hartal tomorrow,” he grins.

“You said what?” His almost permanent grin fades as the implications dawn on him. This is a total disaster.

For those readers unfamiliar with Bangladesh, a Hartal is a general strike, called by the opposition to undermine the sitting government, and enforced through threats and arbitrary car-burning violence. For us it means immediate departure or the risk of being stuck a day’s drive from Dhaka with violence breaking out on the roads between us and home.

‘How many hours back to Dhaka?’ I ask the sudden silence.

Ali clears his throat, shifts uncomfortably and mutters, ‘Only… maybe… I think… eight hours,’ fading out into a nervous grin.

One quick decision later, after hurried good-byes and a detour via the hotel to pick up bags, we head off towards Dhaka. Madam No-Driving-After-Dark, ignoring Ali’s quizzical look and heading out the highway, heading off into the sunset. The distance ahead a mere 260 kilometers, but this is Bangladesh and the route is considered a six-hour drive – on a good day.

This is not a good day. This is a particularly dark, moonless night. The road is filled with roaming livestock, wiry day-laborers, farmers on over-loaded buffalo carts and bicycle trolleys, hijabed women hiding in rickshaws, and marketers transporting piles of vegetables. Early evening tea-stall patrons spill into the road, which, being the only flat, dry and accessible bit of ground available, is also the site of drying crop residues, building materials and enormous logs waiting for transport to the mills.

“Is this road a market place?” Ali rolls down the window and shouts at passing towns where the roadside is the main bazaar, bus stop and meeting place. Outside the towns the road hums with pre-Hartal traffic. All trucks loaded with livestock and market-ripe produce, all buses with long-distance travelers, must beat the deadline and arrive at their destinations before violence breaks out.

Where not lined by homes or villages, the road is a tunnel of trees, or acts as a dyke edged by a two-meter drop to the paddy fields. The opportunities for disasters are endless. Dhaka is distant and Ali swings past weighed-down trucks and buses and swerves around logs and piles of overflowing rice straw. No chance of rest in the car's silent, dark interior – we are all wide-eyed and watching, following every passing light blaze or flicker, reading silhouettes for oncoming unlit trucks or stray goats. Or kids, God help us, crossing the road at just the wrong moment.

The hours pass, the world is an unsteady black duct of hurtling lights and unidentifiable creatures rearing up in the darkness as we flash past. The kilometers spin by and still we are tearing through the blackness.

We reach Jamuna Bridge; the traffic has come to a standstill, an accident somewhere on the five-kilometer bridge. Ali switches off the engine into quiet darkness. Surrounded by yellow trucks, in the car lights we see a yellow tailgate and above it the heavy-horned white heads of Indian holy cows on their way to Dhaka for slaughter. Their moist black eyes gleam in the darkness, watching with quiet dignity.

Truck drivers emerge and communicate quietly.



The names of distant markets pass between them like incantations. Places that must be reached before the Hartal starts at sunrise. They take the delay in their stride, a philosophical calm settles over the whole mad mission. Thirty hushed minutes pass before engines start up ahead. There is movement in the opposite lane.

“At last,” we sigh in unison as the car rolls off the bridge and onwards; onwards towards the place ahead where the clouds gleam from a million lights.

At last we reach the edge of the city; the road is divided by heavy concrete blocks and it seems the inevitable head-on is not going to happen.

‘We’re safe now.” Ali’s grin is back in place.

The traffic loosens up, more cars and fewer trucks. We pass factories and apartment jungles and finally, at 2 am hoot outside the longed-for white gates. I step from the car on unsteady legs.

“Thank you, Ali, for bring us home alive,” I’m humbled by gratitude for solid ground under my feet. Like a creature just released from a beam of bright light, I stagger blindly home and to bed.


Rilla Norslund lives and works in Bangladesh where she travels extensively as part of her job working with small farmers. She writes mainly poetry, but of late some short stories have unexpectedly started appearing. Norslund posts weekly poems and occasional writings HERE.