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 – 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.