Waiting for a train

As I write this I am waiting for a train. I don’t look like I am. I’m in my room, with books and papers all around, nothing packed for the few days I will spend in the capital and knowing that the train will not actually leave until 3 a.m. – if I am lucky.

The reason I say it is because I am waiting for something far more important than the train itself. I’m waiting for the phone call that tells me it won’t leave at 3 a.m. after all but later or, very possibly, won’t leave at all.

For this is Bangladesh, and nothing is ever certain. Indeed, the train was supposed to leave at 10:30 tonight and has already been delayed. This is normal and we are all used to it. There are night trains and there are day trains from Dinajpur in the northwest where we are to Dhaka down in the mid-south. But sometimes, the night trains become day trains and vice versa because of huge delays. Ours is on the verge of doing just that now.

But, again, that is not the biggest worry. The biggest worry is that it won’t run at all or, even worse, that it will.

Confused? Welcome to Bangladesh.

You see today the opposition party has called for a national strike. This strike (called a hartal) is to go on today and tomorrow. This isn’t like a strike we would know in England where you could go a whole day without knowing anything is different and only those directly involved with the union striking would notice. This is serious business. My wife, who is already down in Dhaka, tells me the place is like a ghost town. Nothing is happening. Very peaceful you would think and certainly a lovely change from the noisy, overcrowded and dangerous feel that Dhaka gives to us bideshi foreigners at times.

Except there is a dark side.

Hartals, like elections are taken very seriously and that sometimes means they become violent no matter what officials try to ensure happens. Roads get blocked so traffic cannot pass, buses get set on fire and – this is the crucial bit – ย rail lines get blocked with concrete, trees, debris and so on. It could be our train never makes it up here at all and therefore won’t run. That is a problem but at least dealable with. But it could arrive. We could pile on completely exhausted and ready to crash on the seats-cum-beds in our first class accommodation. We could wake up hours later in the middle of nowhere with a blocked line and nowhere to go. There could be a mob of angry supporters still there at the same time. It would not be the first time a train has been set on fire by an angry mob.

A few weeks ago a friend got stuck in another hartal. He had no choice but to take his suitcase from the taxi he had been journeying home in and carry it over around eighteen trees which had been put across the road to block access.

I can’t really carry my bags to Dhaka if we get stopped at the Jamuna bridge a good four hours away by train. Oh dear.

But, and this is an important but, I am surrounded by friends here who are Bangladeshis and know much better than I what is going on. If the train is running, no matter what time it finally goes they will get me on that train. And if there is a problem on the way, there will be safety with the people on the train. One thing I have seen in this country is that whilst crowds can be dangerous and frenzied, people here are helpful, kind and considerate. Somebody will help.

That’s what I love about this country and value so much. When a Bangladeshi sees a problem, they get involved. In England we walk away. It is easy to get freaked out here by people who just stare at you, but, in many ways, they getting involved as much as they can. If you have no problem then all they can do is stare. But if trouble arises, a crowd will rally to your cause. In Englandwe really have to be convinced there is an issue worth getting involved with. We’re 100% helpful once you get us on board but you have to win us over first.

A few years ago I remember helping an old man who collapsed in the high street. I had both my kids who were very young at the time and that is the excuse I will conveniently use for the fact that I debated in my head whether to help or not. I even wondered if I should just cross to the other side with my kids so we didn’t have to step through the man and his panicking wife. I could even pretend, I thought, that I hadn’t noticed him collapse at all. Lots of other people did exactly that actually.

In the end I helped because I figured I could not explain to my kids why I didn’t help otherwise. I had to set them a good example. But even once I came on board and started to help, phoning for an ambulance and waiting to keep the couple safe with their dropped belongings and so on (it wasn’t much), they both kept trying to tell me to go, they would be alright and how sorry they were to be such a bother. Very British! You couldn’t get much further from that in Bangladesh. To not help would be to not be alive.

So, give me a late train and hartals and political demonstrations and so on. I’d still rather be here in a crisis than amongst strangers in England. But then, at least in England I would be reasonably certain my train would get to where it was supposed to go. As long as the leaves were not too slippy and we didn’t have the wrong kind of snow.

But that’s another story.

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About D K Powell

British freelance journalist, author, writer, editor, musician, educational consultant. I lived with Wifey, Thing I (daughter) & Thing II (son) in Bangladesh for 5-6 years working for an NGO called LAMB. Wifey led the Hospital Rehab department and I used to teach O levels at the school before going full-time as a freelance writer in 2013. Now we're back in the UK learning how to be British again. When not writing or editing, I'm busy trying to complete a Masters degree in Intercultural relations in Asian Contexts and reading way too many books at once. I also drink tea - lots of it.
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9 Responses to Waiting for a train

  1. Monique says:

    Hi Ken,
    I just love your stories! Keep them going! For me, a couple of weeks back, I was cycling and I got something in my eye. As I have contactlenses, I was crying, and had to stop cycling. With contacts, it is the best way to do it yourself, and let NOT other people look in your eye and give their own opinion. But, immediately when I tried to get my eyes clean, there came two Bangladeshi men, asking if I had problems, acting like they were eye doctors their selves, and explaining to me, after a lot of poking in my eye, that they were sure it was just fine. As I still was crying, – because it wasn’t fine yet- , I said many time ‘onek dhonnobad’, got back on my bike, managed to cycle around the corner and finished my own business with my eye. So, I do appreciate help when I fall of a rickshaw – even when they get Reinald out of my way who also wanted to help me- , I didn’t really enjoy it this time…
    Monique

    Like

    • Thanks Monique – glad you are enjoying the blogs!

      It’s difficult isn’t it when going from one culture to another. There have been times in the UK when I would have really wished someone WOULD stop and help but they haven’t. Other times in Bangladesh you really just want to be left alone. Some will probably tell you that as a bideshi woman those men should not have approached you and were being rude but I don’t think that is true – I think they just tried to help, even if they were more of a hindrance in the end! Nobody is perfect I guess ๐Ÿ™‚

      Hope you keep reading – have you subscribed yet?!

      Like

  2. Tamara Zaman says:

    Very insightful!
    I must say I sometimes wonder whether I wouldn’t rather have people ignoring me than pay me the extra unwanted attention on any given day. But then the thought of a crisis comes along, and I contemplate further. I had an incident last year where I almost blacked out in a shopping complex in Banani. To this day I am not sure whether I was more concerned about finding a safe place to rest for a few minutes or the possibility of getting robbed or even the idea of people thronging around a woman who had collapsed outside a shop. I suppose I’ll just be opportunistic and say I would appreciate being left alone (stares-wise) unless in an emergency. Is that fair? ๐Ÿ˜›

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    • ah well yes Tamara, the issue of women and attention in Bangladesh is a little bit different. It is certainly much more dangerous for a woman in distress in the streets of Bangladesh but I disagree with the majority voice that puts that down to “Bangladeshi men”. I think it is just as dangerous for a woman in the UK if men think they can get away with it. That is the key issue. Here, there is the expectation that if a crime is committed then police ought to be able to catch the criminal. I don’t think that expectation is there in Bangladesh. In fact, out in the villages people are much more scared of being caught by their community – who can exact whatever punishment they see fit – rather than the police who are usually unseen and uncaring. Maybe I’m wrong, but that is my impression. You can get away with a crime in Bangladesh but in the UK you think twice.

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  3. lol indeed. it never fails to amaze me how railway officials in the UK find reasons for poor service. And you are right about the pregnant bit. We just prefer to hope someone else will deal with a ‘problem’ in the UK rather than do something ourselves. India and Bangladesh still have a strong sense of moral duty and long may it continue!

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  4. Ruth Subash says:

    Ken or a mouse eating throught the cable. This happened to us on a train in January 2010 when we were going from Carlisle to London and I was 8 1/2 months pregnant. Trains were cancelled and we eventually got on a train and we had to sit on the floor by the door. Eventually a man gave me his seat. In this circumstance I would rather be in India where men always give up there seats for women and children. No one would evner let a pregnant lady, about to give birth, sit on the floor.

    Like

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